September 28, 2018

Tech Giants vs Independent AI Companies: 5 Questions to Ask

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Big Tech, the Big Four or GAFA. Whatever you decide to call them, Google (owned by Alphabet Inc.), Amazon, Facebook and Apple are giants in the technology industry and beyond. I’ve been fortunate enough to work directly with a few of these giants in my career and have gained invaluable insight in doing so. From outside and within the sector, they are often seen as the innovators, driving large societal changes, but they aren’t alone. However, around them, many independent technology companies are pushing innovation, particularly in artificial intelligence (AI).

Before becoming a Senior Account Executive at Clarifai, I was fortunate enough to work directly with a few of these giants in my career and have gained invaluable insight in doing so. With this in mind, I’m going to take you through some key factors about both kinds of tech companies and the things to consider when deciding who to work with.

1. What does it mean to be a tech giant?

While the tech giants are all large companies, there are a few other things that set them apart from other technology companies like Microsoft and IBM. For one, they started out with one core product and have now expanded their offerings to support this core.

Google began with Google Search and have now expanded to include Ads, G Suite (i.e. Gmail, Calendar, Hangouts and more), Google Cloud, etc., all to gather data to enhance advertising. Amazon started off as an online book retailer. Today, they are the largest e-commerce retailer in the world, selling everything from appliances to consumer electronics, including their e-book reader Kindle. They have also acquired multiple subsidiary companies, like Whole Foods Market and Zappos, meaning they have stakes in several verticals.

Another key classifier of the tech giants is a varied tech reach. Still, though they are seen as “creators,” they are typically not leaders in specialization. Amazon and Google, for instance, both offer AI products (Amazon Rekognition and Google Deepmind, respectively), but typically do not lead innovation in the AI field.

Lastly, in my experience, though there may be many resources at the disposal of the tech giants, it’s not always easy to get to those resources because of processes and commitments elsewhere. Again, the tech giants are not dedicated to AI. It is just one of their many offerings used to support their core business.


2. What does it mean to be an independent AI company?

Independent AI companies are usually far smaller than the tech giants and decisions within these companies are largely dictated by dedicated leadership, not by shareholders. They are typically specialized in a specific space of AI, like computer vision, or vertical, such as retail. Since there’s a single focus, you know that those resources are there for the single mission, innovating and improving their AI offering for their customers.

Having the same focus also means it’s much easier for customers to get timely assistance when an issue arises. Further, because their offering is solely AI, companies can partner with independents without the concern of that company becoming a competitor to their core business. When you work with Amazon, that isn’t a guarantee.


3. So, what’s the big difference between the two?

Focus. At independent AI companies, like Clarifai, all of our resources are dedicated to innovation and advancement of AI. Now, when a customer runs into an issue, not only do I know whose responsibility it is, I have access to that specialist.

When I worked in the Google-sphere, while I may have been able to figure out who was responsible for an issue, it wasn’t always guaranteed that I could get on their radar for support. Often, Google support meant calling an international number, navigating an extensive phone tree of options and having to leave a voicemail. With Clarifai, customers are in direct contact with a dedicated customer success manager etc. whenever they need help.


4. But whose tech is better?

It’s not so much whose technology is better, as both the tech giants and independents bring a level of competence. It's more a question of whose technology is more specialized. Tech giants' general computer vision platforms, like Amazon Rekognition, may be able to meet your needs now, but that may not always be the case.

As your project expands, you will likely not only need more specialized support but also more accurate results. At Clarifai, for example, we allow companies to build custom models to fit their specific needs. So, before you decide to utilize the one-size-fits-all AI solutions of the tech giants, it’s essential to ask yourself: Will you be able to take time away from your project to switch platforms if and when you need something more precise?

Also, remember, for the tech giants their business is not AI. AI is just one of the things they use to make their offerings stronger. Unless your needs are going to improve their overall business, the tech giants are far less likely to devote the required resources for product changes targeted for you especially if you are only part of the minority of their business.


5. So who is better for your business and why?

Again, it comes down to specialization. For independents, our sole goal is to advance our technology, not support another, possibly competitive, product line. With independent companies, you will have the opportunity to work directly with the innovative leaders, regardless of your company’s size or footprint.

Finally, while the tech giants may be jacks of all trades, they can’t master them all. Neither Google nor Amazon was able to master the phone market, like Apple, while Google itself failed at building a social media network to rival Facebook. Clarifai, and other independent AI companies, choose to remain experts in one thing: building and offering our customers the best AI we can.

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