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Google and Reality

Google is whining in public about the sad state of the U.S. patent system as it applies to software, and is deservedly being ridiculed for said whining. There's nothing attractive in an 800-lb. gorilla crying about the iniquities of the jungle.

This is about more than just patents, though. Google has been given a free pass for years on the basis of their free-at-face-value services, their "open" approach, and the famous "do no evil" motto. That pass has expired.

First, "free" online services are never really free. There are hidden costs in ad-driven services, the first being user experience. In Google World you're never free of ads. They may be in your face, they may be tucked out of the way, but they're always there creating cognitive overhead, making your online life just a bit more cluttered, bombarding you with distractions. I won't even get into the privacy aspects of Google knowing so much about its users. When you use Google, you truly are the product being sold.

Then there's Android, the "open" mobile platform. What does open mean in this context? Let's ignore for a moment the litigation surrounding Android. On the ground the Android flavor of "open" means that handset vendors and mobile carriers are free to do with it what they will. The vast majority of Android users will never even root their phone, because they're not among the small percentage of humans who find the internal workings of mobile devices interesting. In the mean time handset manufacturers and carriers control when users get OS upgrades.

Finally, and of primary importance, Google is a publicly traded company. When they first proclaimed they would "do no evil" it sounded like typical Silicon Valley naiveté. Every Valley company that rockets quickly to the top of the heap goes through a period of giddy American hubris, in which it assumes immense profits and unmitigated human good must as if by law of nature go hand in hand.

Then the reality hits. The company falls on tough times. The giveaways to the education sector dry up. The talk of using remote videoconferencing technology to save the world is quietly put to an end. Slowly it sinks in: We are here to make money for shareholders. All else is window dressing.

The reality has not hit at Google, but it will sooner or later. Maybe it already has, and perhaps that's why Eric Schmidt is no longer CEO. If that's the case, the rhetoric coming from Mountain View hasn't caught up with the times. Google still presents itself as a company that truly believes everything it does is for the good of humanity at large. When it was a charmed startup that quaint notion looked like youthful optimism. Now it looks at best like willful avoidance of reality and at worst like an attempt to trade on half-truths.

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