A few months ago, I was approached to write a movie about Google. The producer had rights to a book, but more importantly seemed to have access to significant people with connections in the company, both at its founding and today. I was intrigued.
I think Google is one of the most fascinating success stories of the last few decades, and certainly worthy of big-screen (or small-screen) exploration. The producer wanted to focus on the early days, which is understandable: it’s an underdog story, with scrappy geniuses inventing the future. He was particularly keen on Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy.
I jumped in: “And then, of course, the second act is about how they become evil despite themselves. It’s like Animal Farm. The pigs make all these noble rules, and then systematically subvert them.”
Crickets. I won’t be writing the Google movie.
But it’s remarkable how much my appreciation for Google has shifted over the last year or two. I use their products, but I don’t love the company anymore. In fact, I’m kind of nervous about them. It’s a small thing, but I stopped syncing my address book through Google. I don’t want all of my stuff in their cloud.
Some of what I’m feeling may just be the need to have a technology villain. As an Apple user, that’s long been Microsoft, but it’s hard to feel threatened by a company that keeps tripping over itself. When Microsoft has a big success — Kinect, for example, is amazing — I find myself rooting for them.
I’m not the only one noticing something has changed about Google. They cozy up with Verizon on net neutrality. While cheering for openness, they embrace Adobe’s proprietary Flash format. They have valid competitive reasons to do both, but it’s inconsistent with their stated philosophy.
They launch services that seem under-thought and over-engineered, like Google Wave and Buzz. Meanwhile, they’ve actually become worse at the thing you mean when you say “google.” For example, Paul Kedrosky tried to compare dishwashers, and found nothing but spam and gibberish:
Google has become a snake that too readily consumes its own keyword tail. Identify some words that show up in profitable searches — from appliances, to mesothelioma suits, to kayak lessons — churn out content cheaply and regularly, and you’re done. On the web, no-one knows you’re a content-grinder.
How do these content-grinders make money? Largely through Google ads. It’s created a situation in which inferior search results make more money for Google. Yes, they still want to organize the world’s information, but it’s become easier to see the gray text after it: “…so we can sell ads next to it.”
The Android operating system it makes for mobile phones has become a viable challenger for Apple’s iOS. But for all the talk about it being “open,” they’re not giving it away out of the goodness of their hearts. Explains Kyle Baxter:
Android isn’t an attempt to build the best mobile platform and sell it on its merits; it’s a play to control the vast majority of the mobile market, secure eyeballs for Google advertising and eliminate any threat to Google.
At Google board meetings, do they discuss whether they should aim for smaller market share? I doubt it, though if asked about any other industry, they would stress the importance of robust competition.
Narratively, that’s the story I find most interesting about Google. At a certain point, do you become so large and powerful that evil is unavoidable?
I love the United States, but it’s easy to see why many actions our country takes in its own self-interest appear evil to other parts of the world. We want to raise the standard of living worldwide — but not at the cost of American jobs. We believe strongly in human rights, unless we’re talking about suspected terrorists, in which case we go Jack Bauer in a hurry.
Espousing freedom is easy except when it threatens your own dominance. That’s the conundrum Google is in at the moment, though I wonder if they even recognize it.