What is Google doing?
A few years ago, web thinker Jeff Jarvis published an homage to the world’s most successful Web search and advertising company titled “What Would Google Do?” These days, the question seems to be, “What is Google doing?”
Google won us over with a revolutionary approach to Web search that made its predecessors seem archaic. It quickly toppled Yahoo as the coolest company on the planet based solely on its efficient and fast way of finding everyone else’s content. Now, though, Google is something entirely different.
What is Google doing? I’m not sure. There may well be a great, bumper-sticker answer. But Google’s actions are too chaotic to come up with a grand, unified theory. It’s toying with apps, mobile software, mobile hardware, mobile phones – and, oh yeah, still dabbles in Web services it decides with zero discussion to terminate with extreme prejudice. It’s one thing to be pulled in all directions as a dance partner, it’s another to have it happen on some carnival ride.
Search has turned out to be only Google’s opening gambit. It still owns just under 70 percent of search market share, and because of that reach about 40 percent of online advertising. For some companies that would be enough, this one, near-perfect service. But Google had bigger ambitions than merely imposing order on the Internet’s chaos.
We got a hint of Google’s plans in 2006, when it paid $1.65 billion – what was its largest acquisition to date – for YouTube. It also gave us Gmail and Google Docs, which dramatically changed users’ attachment to the cloud and boosted their own productivity. A bunch of honest tries, like Wave & Buzz, followed – early misfires in collaboration and social networking. But for all of Google’s innovation and experimentation, it started to feel like Lucy and the football. Rather than keeping what resonated, Google seemed to abruptly end services we had found useful, and had even come to depend on. It shuttered Google Health, a service that maintained all your medical information, and Google 411, a voice-activated directory service.
Part of the problem is our own unhealthy addiction to “free” software. Who doesn’t want a free service like Google Docs? But another issue is that Google has been not so much using the crowd as abusing it. It goes public with too many things and, even worse, gives up on some that worked, could have worked and did exactly what Google presumably wanted: cultivating dedicated users who grew to depend on them.
And that is where cultivating and banking goodwill come in. The trick when you’re disrupting yourself is to bring everyone who loves you along for the new ride without making it seem like you’re a shadow of your former self – even if you are. Facebook managed it, reversing course from the most exclusive network in the world to the least. Apple did it, moving from the “something for everyone” model before Steve Jobs came back from exile to “Think Different.”
The last straw for many was Google’s surprise decision last week to kill Reader, the seven-year-old RSS service that brought RSS into the mainstream. James Fallows makes the case for becoming wary of Google’s very reliability. How, he asks, can you allow yourself to possibly trust Google when the company is so cavalier?
After Reader’s demise, many people noted the danger of ever relying on a company’s free offerings. When a company is charging money for a product … – as Evernote does for all above its most basic service, and same for Dropbox and SugarSync – you understand its incentive for sticking with that product. The company itself might fail, but as long as it’s in business it’s unlikely just to get bored and walk away, as Google has from so many experiments.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 39 times, shame on me. (My Reuters colleague Jack Shafer also has thoughts on Reader.)
So what is Google up to? Is it a forward-thinking company that embraces its customers as partners or uses them as focus groups it later ignores?
In recent years, Google has started doing things that aren’t very Google. It flopped in an attempt to market a mobile phone – the Nexus One – but then purchased Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion. Why? It has nothing to show for it except shedding more than 5,000 employees. If it intends to mount an NFC takeover with a slew of iPhone-killing, Google Wallet-empowered Motorola Phones, then Google is better at keeping secrets than Apple.
It has partnered with a number of hardware manufacturers to kick-start the netbook business with their bespoke Chrome operating system. (I positively reviewed both the low-end and high-end models.) But the Chromebooks are selling worse that Microsoft Surface hybrids (which I didn’t like) – and that’s saying something. Project Glass, Google’s entry into Minority Report eyeware, gets lots of attention – and frankly seems very cool – but as a mainstream consumer device it seems eons away at best.
When did Google become a hardware company? I missed that memo.
Change is scary, but necessary. But explaining the changes that are going to come is a necessary part of doing responsible, do-no-evil business. Google has never been particularly good about customer relations – seriously, did you buy a Nexus One? What it also isn’t good at is bringing us – the users – along. Without projecting a clear idea of what it is really up to – and what’s in it for us in the long run – the company risks the onset of Google Fatigue, especially when there are good or better alternatives to almost everything Google does.
Google’s best move would be to define itself, bringing order to its chaos. There’s a perfect opportunity right around the corner: Google I/O, the company’s annual developer’s conference, in mid-May. I’m saving the date to my Google Calendar right now.
PHOTO: Google co-founder Sergey Brin speaks with attendees following the Life Sciences Breakthrough Prize announcement in San Francisco, California February 20, 2013. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith