(image) Here’s a short overview of Google’s past few months: It’s angered policymakers and pundits with a sweeping change to its privacy settings. It’s taken a beating for favoring its own properties in its core search results. It’s been caught with its hands in Apple’s cookie jar, and despite the fact Facebook and others previously condoned the practice, it was savaged for doing so. It’s continuing to fight an expensive and uncertain patent war. And its blinkered focus on beating Facebook – a company which, at its core, couldn’t be more different philosophically – has caused many to wonder….What on earth has happened to the Google we once knew?
Has it abandoned its principles of supporting the open web, data liberation, and doing no evil? Is Google turning into … another walled garden?
Well, those are questions I’ve been pondering for a while now, and I think I have an answer, or at least, some reasonable speculation as to an answer.
Here’s the short version of the answer: Google is playing for the long term, but it feels it has no choice but to make these moves now. It’s in a “rip off the band aid” phase of the game.
The longer version goes something like this: Google had identified a central and existential threat to its future, and that threat is….us. Or rather, the fact that Google doesn’t have a direct relationship with us, in the way Apple or Facebook does.
Think about it. When you use Facebook, you’re always logged in, and your identity and relationships – to others, to content, to apps and services – are assets Facebook can use to customize your experience (oh, and your ads). You then take that identity and those relationships, and you promiscuously spread them around the web, logging into any number of services through Facebook’s Open Graph, giving Facebook an even deeper sense of who you are, what you consume, and what you “like.” You happily give Facebook terabytes of structured data about yourself, content with the implicit tradeoff that Facebook is going to give you a social service that makes your life better.
Now think about Apple. For those of us who use its iPhone, iPad, iPod, and/or iTunes and other products, Apple has a complete picture of both our identity, and our relationship to Apple services (like iTunes, iCloud, iPhoto, MobileMe, etc.) as well as to the huge universe of apps on its devices. It also has a few hundred million of our credit card numbers, something Facebook can only dream of having (don’t worry, Facebook is working on that).
Oh, and when Apple wants to push a new version of iOS, its operating system, it simply does it. You might take the time to read the documentation as to what changed since the last operating system, but I doubt it. Like most of us, you just accept the update, because you don’t want your phone to stop working. Right?
Ditto for Apple’s terms of service and privacy policies. Have you ever read them? Really? Then you’re in a very small minority. Most of us don’t bother, because we trust Apple – like with Facebook, we figure if they do something that really pisses us off, we’ll drop them for an alternative. Right?
Finally, let’s think about our relationship with Google, circa mid 2011, before Google+ was introduced. For most of us, Google meant search, and the majority of us used search anonymously – we weren’t logged in. Google has been working on getting us to “personalize” search by logging in for years, but that only solved part of its problem. Hundreds of millions of us also used other Google products – Picasa for photos, YouTube for culture fixes, Gmail for communication, Blogger for expression, Maps, Docs, and lord knows what else for productivity. Not to mention, hundreds of millions more of us started using Chrome and Android.
Now, before Google+, every single one of those services had its own set of policies, its own approach to identity management, and its own vast data silos. It was one big hot holy mess, from Google’s point of view. As customers, we saw Google as one brand, but the truth is, we used its various services as if each came from a different company.
And that meant Google couldn’t compete with Apple or Facebook when it came to any number of crucial factors. It had no single point of reference for communicating with its customers. It had no way to link its services and provide consistent updates, policy changes, or shared uses (would you like to integrate your Picasa photos into your Google search results? Sorry bud, I don’t know who you are, you’re out of luck!).
And this created one Very Big Problem for Larry Page & Co: Google couldn’t be elegant, or design driven, or easy to use. And we consumers have proven that we really, really want those things in our web services. That’s why Apple is winning. It’s why Facebook is winning. And it’s why Google was desperately afraid that it was about to lose.
So Google held its nose, built Google+ as its connective tissue, and plunged into a world of pain. It’s not over yet, but the game is afoot. Google is in the process of becoming Apple- and Facebook-like in its relationship to us.
Does that mean that Google will become Apple and Facebook? Time will tell, but my suspicion is no. And as much as I’d like to say the reason is high-minded, I think it’s more about competitive positioning. The people I know at Google really believe in the open web. They believe in data portability. And they believe in supporting an ecosystem that isn’t entirely under Google’s control. It’s that open-web ecosystem that created Google (and Facebook, and Apple, for that matter). And I think Google sees an end game – once it has direct, meaningful relationships with its customers, it believes it will be seen as the most open and accommodative player amongst the Internet Big Five. It will compete on policy and data use, and it believes it will win on those points. It will provide alternatives to Facebook and Apple, and it believes those alternatives will prove more consumer friendly over time.
Apple and Facebook have already shown themselves to have a philosophy of domain-specificity: everything works great, as long as you’re within their controlled domains. Building an open web alternative to that approach is messy, it’s painful, and it sometimes appears to contradict Google’s core principles. But I believe, in the end, it’s what Google is trying to do.
I shudder to think of an opposite outcome – where Google begins to act just like its main competitors. It could happen – and many of you have given up on the company doing anything but just that. But I think the world needs an alternative, and there are precious few companies with the heft and motivation to create one. In fact, there’s really just one…at least, for now.