Google - the new Microsoft?
The March of Progress (pt.94)
Analysis Google is the new Microsoft, reckons author Gary Rivlin in a New York Times article provocatively titled Relax, Bill Gates; It's Google's Turn as the Villain.
SiliconValley sources quoted by Rivlin compare Google's ruthless and paranoid culture today with the Microsoft of old, bemoan its influence on the recuitment market, and note the reluctance of VCs to fund bright startups which might find themselves competing with Google. All of which is true - but true enough to make the comparison stand?
Microsoft earned its status as a convincted monopolist in the US courts by exerting exclusionary tactics in several ways, both economic and technological. It locked down its distribution channels, for example, by insisting computer makers pay for a MS DOS license whether they shipped the OS with the system or not. The company sabotaged rivals, notably the DR-DOS and OS/2 for Windows products, by ensuring they weren't fully compatible with its products.
Another Microsoft tactic, of setting de facto standards to favor itself, is one that Google could well deploy, particularly through its recently-revived Web Accelerator plan. But to date there's no sign of it overstepping the boundary. So the only sensible judgement that Google is the new Microsoft would be "not proven".
However, passions run high. It's easy to forget that Microsoft hasn't killed babies or poisoned the water supply, and that Google hasn't saved lives or invented telepathy. People need their archetypes, and let's explore the context which creates such heroes and villains.
First we need to unwire a little conventional wisdom. The popular view of technology is its role in the grand, sweeping upward March of Progress. Great, global changes flow from this March, and it’s the role of Great Men such as Bill Gates and Michael Dell to carpe diem, and steer some of this our way. It's quite beyond the likes of us to understand or question it, but it's unarguably a) a Good Thing and b) inevitable. A prime example of this advocacy is Thomas Friedman, although you can throw a rock here in Silicon Valley and the odds are it will hit a dot-com pundit saying much the same thing.
Historicism of this kind would make a Marxist proud, and is perhaps why so many former Trots become evangelists of Technology and Globalization: the certainty and simplicity of telelogical narratives hold a strong appeal. It's easier to flip ideologies than think a little deeper. But such a view wouldn't be out of place from a forelock-tugging serf in Monty Python's Holy Grail, either.
To really understand the passions that Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. arouse we must anchor them in a larger context, as both companies are very much products of their time.
Microsoft's big break came in August 1981, with the launch of the IBM PC. It coincided with the rise of Thatcher and Reagan, and the loosening of capital restrictions world wide. Over the next few years financial markets were deregulated and digitized, and the result was a lot of hot money flying around the world looking for returns. The war was on to dismantle old vertical companies and markets and create new markets instead, and Microsoft was perfectly placed to capitalize on the new vogue. Financial markets loved the horizontal model because it squeezed costs out of the system.
Some of the markets created in the 1980s and 1990s were genuine, such as the short-lived PC business software market, and others, such as derivatives and junk bonds and dot-coms were essentially fraudulent. This matters little to the "market maker" who has cashed in and departed by the time consolidation in the market occurs or after the Feds have been called in to investigate where the missing pension fund has gone.
So Microsoft took on a succession of vertical vendors and bested them: some, like IBM recovered from the trauma, while others, like DEC and Wang, didn't. But even as developers grumbled, the era of $300,000 database systems and $2,000 SDKs was passing. Microsoft put a shiny face on the era.
Today, Google is just as much a product of its times as Microsoft was fifteen years ago.
The technology market is booming in one sector today. It's the dark side of ubiquitous computer networks: fuelled by spending on law enforcement. Writing in Open Democracy, Will Davies describes the boom as a surveilance dot.com era, and Davies quotes the British Home Secretary Charles Clarke as saying "the more we can survey the way in which people operate, the way in which they make their phone calls, the better your chance of identifying patterns of behaviour which are a threat."
Which results in "less faith on human judgement and more on spotting patterns in complex systems" - a favorite activity of Googleserfs and their fanatical supporters outside the Googleplex.
It's an article of faith amongst many of the company's employees, and certainly its fans, that cybernetic patterns can teach us something we don't already know, and that some deep epistemological truth will be revealed.
It's no surprise ordinary people find this creepy. Information isn't some special kind of stuff, and cybernetic patterns lead to disastrous consequences. (See Emergent cheese-sandwich detector enlisted in War on Terror for several examples).
The consequences of technology - such as an inability to find a call center operator "empowered" to help you, or having a loan turned down because of an algorithm - often leave people feeling helpless. Can't we use technology too, to level the playing field, some ask? Wouldn't it be great if it was a short cut to the messy political process? Once it was Microsoft's role to play the part of liberation technology, and now it's Google's. These are odd straws to clutch at. Technology has helped power shift away from the little guy over thirty years.
The days, not so distant, when Google's fanatical supporters claimed the search engine would save us from a surveillance society, seem very strange today. This, and many more examples of 2003-era nuttiness can be found here [RTF, 14kb].
Davies cites one delicious example where the public's collaboration with the great Web Truth machine can't be taken for granted.
"As one blogger, Lee Maguire, jokes grimly on his website: 'Homepages, eh? I've always suspected there was a huge "Big Brother" database containing everyone's private details ... and now I'm responsible for writing my own entry.”
Trust is a precious commodity and almost impossible to regain once lost. Google's instinctive reactions to several controversies to date have been marked by naïvety and evasiveness. It often gives the impression that it's blissfully unaware of the responsibilities it carries. And while the company no longer responds to controvery by dispatching pictures of its goofy founders riding around on colored beach balls or tooling about on their Segways, it hasn't worked out a more mature approach, either. This deficiency is exemplified by company's most famous hostage to fortune - its corporate mission statement, "Do No Evil".
But that's for us to judge, not Google.
Rational analysis of Google will be increasingly difficult as it grapples with these and other issues. Not all of Google's "embrace and extend" tactics need necessarily be "evil". Consensus is emerging that a new technical infrastructure is needed for public IP networks, and Google's Web Accelerator is simply one example where slinging the old ideologies overboard (like "end to end") could bring huge benefits to users. We'll see many examples of this, and MSPs like Mashboxx and PlayLouder, which attempt to create a new hybrid between public and private networks are almost here.
But as these are deployed, we'll do well to remember whose interests are being served. The Times, Gary Rivlin gives the last word to the founders' Stanford friend and VC Brian Lent.
"I like and respect the Google guys," says Lent, "but let's just say that their ultimate aim seems to me to be, 'One Google under Google, for which it stands.'" ®