07 November 2007

Google as the new Microsoft, and what it might mean

[Much of what follows is speculative and based on my memory of things I’ve read online, mostly in blogs but less frequently in personal communications.]

I should be working, but a thought finally coalesced with respect to Google: they suffer from the same hubris that makes Microsoft so intolerable, similar not only in degree but also in character.

[As if to support my point, this item just turned up on my Twitter stream.]

By all reports Google is a great place to work, and despite its size still retains a hothouse vibe. Their decision to open a data center in the Columbia Gorge warms my native-Oregonian heart. It’s undeniable that some Really Cool S--t is finding its way out of Menlo Park. As it stands, the Web is better for the fact that Google’s in the marketplace.


Google’s recent business moves, their defensive silence toward the community of Web standards advocates, the tone of their press and public relations — not least Eric Schmidt’s conniptions after he was thoroughly made by c|net on the strength of data provided by Google itself — and a small number of personal communications leave me feeling uneasy about the stamp that Google is bound to put on the Web.

Whether they realize it or not, Google’s gone out of their way to convince me that they know what’s best for the Web, doing so in a tone so paternalistic and annoying that my reaction can be best summed up in words of one syllable.

While I may be part of a tiny minority now, I’m certain that I’m not alone — and that I’m likely to be among climbing numbers of distinguished company as time goes on, if current trends remain in place.

A List of Bad Things I Don’t Want: Google Edition

  • A monopoly market in the Web ad brokering space

    Yes, I know that there are other vendors out there, and some of them are doing quite well. I’ve even had one of them as an end client. However, Google stands by silently while the press insinuates that they’re in direct (and hostile) competition with Microsoft and Yahoo for brokerage market share — a silence which speaks quite loudly.

    This is a problem because: as the clear leader in search, and being the only one of those Big Three whom I can count on to really Get It and innovate (sorry, Yahoo, but that’s the writing I see on the wall, hooray for overly-deep orgcharts), I reckon it’s a matter of time before they have a commanding market share. With that outcome supposed, consider further that Wall Street loves revenue, and that Google’s rank and file have a personal interest in the health of their stock holdings. Given this intersection of interests and the lack of transparency about Google’s ad revenue payments to publishers, I’m discouraged by the thought of what might happen over time.

  • Ubiquitous — if not inevitable — single-source toolkits

    For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, Google’s been working overtime to make pretty new toys for us Web developers. Google’s people are smart, and their tools are terrific, but what happens when those tools achieve ubiquity? I would think that all hell will start to break loose, security-wise.

    This is a problem because: monocultures are bad, yet Google seems quite happy to try and create some.

  • Process opacity

    Google refused to yield on privacy issues. They maintain strict silence about details of subjects such as blacklisting and revenue payments to publishers. Despite experience and contacts, I know exactly squat about their application beta test process, and not for lack of keeping in touch. To be honest, when I consider those things I wonder if I’m looking at a company that has a Politburo rather than an executive team.

    This is a problem because: in a future where a single company has its hands into every page request, that company ought to be transparent to a point for the sake of the public good… but Google’s culture militates toward secrecy, a fact which is unlikely ever to change.

  • Horizontal integration and/or presence to the point of absurdity

    Rather than focussing on “killer apps” Google is getting its fingers into every-damn-thing, and they’re not terribly shy about their intention to plaster their name on as much online real estate as possible. Whether we realize it or not, we as users are already forced to deal with Microsoft’s omnipresence on our desks. The last thing I want is for any company, even Google, to homogenize the Web in the spirit of Microsoft’s example.

    This is a problem because: in the long run it will hold the Web back by limiting the avenues along which innovation and creativity can move.

  • Significant privacy-destroying design flaws in critical applications

    This is related to the fear of toolkit ubiquity outlined above, and to a degree my feelings on this matter are due to Google being a victim of its own success. People rely on GMail to conduct business, and in fact I may be cornered into doing the same thing before long. The prospect of Yet Another GMail Hole is the one thing that’s stopped me, though.

    This is a problem because: at the bottom line, it’s the same problem suffered by Microsoft — get enough valuable data or resources in one basket, and some unscrupulous and/or attention-whoring shitbag will go out of his way to ruin the days of several million people… in this case, using Google’s platforms and infrastructure to do it.

  • A market environment in which one company can be coerced by any authority into surrendering personal data by the metric boatload

    Search, GMail, Desktop, Maps, Blogger, Analytics, and AdSense all provide data that in appropriately intelligent and resourceful hands can be used to conduct all manner of surreptitious surveillance. When I consider the attitude toward civil liberties of the sitting Presidential Administration, and further the precedent set by Yahoo when it rolled over for the Chinese government, I am deeply discouraged about Google’s ability — even given the best of intentions, and its public interactions with the U.S. Government to date — to protect its users’ right to privacy.

    This is a problem because: societies without effective safeguards of personal privacy melt down eventually, and Google is going out of its way to be part of the problem — in part because of the market it’s in, but also because of its own strongly-hewn culture of secrecy.

  • “The standards are what we say they are, ’n y’all can just f--k off.”

    Microsoft’s already doing this, and has been for years with its foot-draggin’, platform-embracin’, interface-extendin’, market-assimilatin’, monopoly-havin’ ways. And here’s Google, twisting-spindling-mutilating the Web toolset and screaming from on high that that’s just they way it has to be.

    After more than five years of being called upon to live up to the requirements of being attached to the best-known Web standards advocacy organization on the planet short of the W3C itself, I am here and now calling Google’s position a steaming heap of lies — all the more because in search and ads, they are clinging to lowest-common-denominator implementation methods that actually retard market adoption of up-to-date platforms… in spite of the fact that they have literally hundreds of people in their organization who are far smarter than I ever dreamed of being. If I can make it work, and if I can imagine ways in which it can be made to work in environments I haven’t worked in, why can’t they?

    This is a problem because: the evolution of the Web will only move at a glacial pace (with respect to its potential) until both Microsoft and Google wise up. So, why is a company for which the first standing order is “don’t be evil” being part of the problem, rather than being part of the solution? In all cases save destructive mutation. evolution is a good (i.e., not-evil) thing, yet as part of the problem Google is stunting that evolution. Good job, guys!

  • All of the above, plus willful ignorance of the wisdom of crowds.

    I’ve heard tell of many smart people who’ve been recruited by Google, which should not come as a surprise. What will surprise you is that the potential roles for these prospects were worked out by management before they were ever contacted, to the point that they were told in great detail what they would be doing if hired — not unlike a military officer being sent to a new billet. This speaks for some sort of grand vision on which the public’s not being let in, and that’s the part that really scares me.

    This is a problem because: any company that seems inclined to ignore its customers, preferring instead to follow an analogue of a Five Year Plan, is not a company I want anywhere near the Web that is my living and my link to the outside world. And I don’t give a damn how smart the people at that company are, if that’s how they wanna play it.

And before you cry “Godvinski!”

The more thoughtful among you have probably noticed that I’ve made two archly-put comparisons between Google and the Soviet Union. Part of that editorial position is by way of introducing an additional element of fear into my rhetoric, for sure. More to the point, however, years of private and academic study of post-1812 Russian history make the comparison too easy for me to make. Maybe I’m just seeing Sergey Brin’s stamp on Google’s culture and freaking out¹, but on consideration I see that as a bit of a stretch. There’ve surely been a lot of changes since Google brought aboard professional managers.

However, that Google reminds me of Russia² for any reason should by itself be instructive, even without the quasi-political subtext.


All of the points I outlined above, especially the last, leave me under the inescapable impression that Google thinks it knows what’s good for us, better than we do. Thanks to Microsoft we already deal with one company that’s foisted that view on its market, and we’re all familiar (to a greater or lesser degree) with the manifold consequences of that attitude. The thought that we’re letting it happen all over again is bothersome, to say the least.


¹As cultural traits go, mania for secrecy is pretty well a Russian one. All generalizations, comparisons, and contrasts aside, I really do hope that I’m looking at an absurdly misplaced but mostly harmless cultural artifact, and not some flaw in an important system (Google as a company) that could bring down the full smash to the detriment of the entire Web.

²Yes, I know better than to conflate Russia and the USSR, but in this instance I’m referring to Russia as the latter’s predecessor and successor state. Yeah, that’s me, being pedantic so that you don’t need to. You’re welcome.

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