My (off-topic) thoughts on Google

This is completely off topic but after reading and listening to a few things in the last couple of days it has got me thinking (and by the looks of it ranting). CNN Money has a fairly lofty article Imaging the Future of Google from four different scenarios: Google becomes the media, Google becomes the Internet, Google dies or Google becomes God. It all makes for an interesting read, even if some of the possible outcomes are rather far-fetched in a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy kind of way.

Recently Steve Gillmor on his podshows The Gillmor Gang (Captain Crunchberry Gang) and The Gillmor Daily (Gym Shorts) has enjoyed bringing up the question of who will prevail, Google or Microsoft? To Steve the battle between Microsoft and Google is a life or death one and something Microsoft is sure to loose. He views the Internet as the new platform, not the operating system. With this change the balance of power has shifted significantly from the ‘stagnant’ Microsoft to the ‘can do no wrong’ Google. On the Gym Shorts podcasts he heatedly discusses this opinion with Mike Arrington (of TechCrunch fame). Mike has recently met with Microsoft and seen what they have planned with Windows Live and he is “pretty excited about some of the stuff that was discussed”. Mike sees Microsoft’s command of the operating system and their ability to bridge that and a user’s Internet experience as something that will eventually trump Google. As it is Steve’s show he steadfastly controls the debate but unfortunately often fails to make his point or stick to a concise idea. Mike on the other hand strikes down most of Steve’s points and ridicules most of Google’s product line, except for PageRank, which he views as their only real innovation in the market-space. The podshows are a good listen but at times it would be nice to have a little less Steve and more guest, but as he says often it is his show and if you want to control the message make your own.

Personally I do not see any dramatic end-game scenario as predicted by CNN Money or Steve Gillmor. Whilst Google has a number of interesting products and a search engine that works okay there are a number of things going against Google:

1. The operating system is still important until we reach a point where the Internet is as ubiquitous as power sockets.

The idea that the Internet browser is the new platform is interesting but a little short sighted. The operating system links the hardware to the user and will always be a far richer, more responsive experience than that of the Internet-based application. Another important aspect an operating system provides is consistency, I know when I turn my computer on how fast it will go, what it will look like and what it can do. The Web on the other hand is completely the opposite, it’s appearance changes almost daily, sites are offline or taken away without warning and network issues miles away from where you are sitting still play a crucial factor in how fast things happen.

What is yet to emerge is the true Internet operating system, an environment where the Web is not experienced through an application on your desktop and there is no distinction between ‘My Computer’, ‘Local Network’ and ‘The Internet’. We are starting to see this a little with widgets and weblog editor/browsers like Flock. There has always been talk of Google releasing an operating system probably based on Linux for home users. Unfortunately I think if this was the case the product would fail simply because to some extent Google would be lowering themselves to Microsoft’s level and attempting to slug it out in the mud for a trophy at the end of the day most people see as being irrelevant in the long-term. If Google were to release an operating system it should not be simply a themed Linux distro with their proprietary packages built in but instead something so completely Internet centric it resembles no operating system in the wild.

This of course cannot happen until Internet connectivity is as common as power sockets in the home. At present for most people the Internet exists at their desk or in an area of their office, once they move out of this space it is for all intent and purposes gone. We still have Internet cafes and friends (or the next-door neighbours) house to call on but we cannot just take it otherwise there is a real chance of criminal prosecution. And even if we get permission to use it there maybe still issues with actually getting it to your computer due to configuration problems or physical constraints like no wireless signal or NIC port. This is not the case with power sockets I know I can plug my laptop into anywhere to get a charge and whilst not asking permission beforehand may earn a stern look, it certainly will not land you in jail.

2. People are prepared to pay money in order to get less adverts or an ad-free experience.

With the success of ad-supported software models such as GMail there is now upsurge in support for all software to turn advert supported and do away with point of sale licensing. The argument is this revenue model severely undermines conventional systems used by companies like Microsoft. This it is proposed will lead to people dropping their conventional licenses and shifting to low-cost, advertising supported software probably supplied by Google.

This theory revolves around the notion that people are thrifty and will sit through a few annoying adverts in order to get something for free (or at a lower cost). What this seems to ignore is that in an advertising saturated environment people will pay more to have something without adverts. Case in point: pay TV, it costs more than ad supported ‘free to air’ channels but people are willing to pay quite a bit of money a month in order to watch ad-free movies, uninterrupted sports and expensive content that advertising revenue alone cannot hope to cover. This maybe different in the United States however where people seem content to pay for their cable service and endure lengthy and frequent ad breaks during sporting events (just look at the Super-bowl, about the only thing people care about outside of the US is what adverts play during it).

I for one would rather pay money and have less adverts than have a free Google desktop environment that is always displaying context sensitive sponsored messages. Apple get a lot of flack over the cost of their .Mac online accounts which provide email, web and file services for $99 per year. The argument is that if .Mac was turned into an ad supported environment it could be offered for significantly less (or free like GMail) and consequently gain a much higher usage. What this argument ignores is the stable nature of the .Mac income vs the turmoil which is an ad-supported one. Whilst Apple only has one million .Mac subscribers it knows it will earn 100 million in sales which in the supply/demand market of advertising is hard to predict (just look at Google’s last quarter sales figures).

3. Google’s strategy is muddled

If Google does have the capability to beat Microsoft and take the role of top dog it’s recent product releases and apparent lack of coherent strategy do not bode well. In The Google Story it is often said that one of the best things about Google is that it is run like a University. Having been associated with a University for a while I can safely say that in so-far as creating sound business strategy this is not a good thing. Whilst Universities can set a general tone they often lack the single minded, often brutal focus that tightly controlled companies led by the likes of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs can bring to situation. Consequently it is not too surprising to see the emergence of a Google product and services line that has all the co-ordination of a shotgun blast. Picasa is good but it was bought, GMail works but is in no way a competitor to Exchange, Google Earth/Maps, News and GTalk have their good points and things like Blog Search, Book Search, Google Desktop, Toolbar and Pack seem almost still-born.

In fact some of the most interesting things to come of these products seem to be being done by third parties like GoogleFS (a Linux file system that uses the storage available in GMail), the variety of Google Maps mash-ups and applications that are building in GTalk’s extension of the Jabber protocol to enable voice communication.

My Dull Prediction

Google definitely has shaken Microsoft out of their hangover following their victories in the Browser and Network wars with Netscape and Novell. Unlike both of these companies it is highly unlikely Google will fade away to nothing (unless they do something seriously wrong) but I doubt they will grow to the point where they become the Internet (or God for that matter). Their biggest trick so far was to create a search engine that actually was an advertising company without anyone realising. It will be very difficult for them to pull that one off again and become an operating system company that behaves like an advertising agent who does search. Also there is a slow dissatisfaction growing with their search capabilities and their scattered product line. Soon like Apple and Microsoft in the past they will need to reinvigorate and refocus their actions and once they do that they will be seen not as some unbeatable super-entity but rather just another big company staking out their turf before the young coyotes come in and steal their prey.