John Gruber replies to my gentle spoofing of his post about Larry Page’s statements with a measured and considered piece which highlights his key point: That Page was simply being hypocritical:
“What major tech giant has Google not pitted itself against? Whose mashed potatoes do they not seek to take? Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Oracle, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon — Google has made enemies of all of them. The difference between Google’s predatory rapaciousness today and Microsoft’s of yore is that Microsoft wore it on their sleeve, they owned it, celebrated it. What rankles about Google is their hypocrisy.”
There’s an element of truth to this (it is, as John puts it, when referring to the likes of Ive’s comments on not caring about making money, “truthy”). Google as a company has always had the kind of “why shouldn’t we?” arrogance that you’d expect when the founders are a pair of Montessori-educated certified geniuses rather than a couple of drop-out hippies. They’ve had no fear about going up against much older and (initially) far better resourced incumbents. If they decide they want to do something, they really don’t care who gets rubbed up the wrong way.
From the outside, I can see how this looks like “predatory rapaciousness”. But John positions these actions as being driven by greed:
“Page was telling the I/O audience what they wanted to hear, that Google is something other than a ruthless, greedy competitor… The drum I’m trying to bang here is not that Google is a greedy competitor, but rather that Google is a greedy competitor that presents itself as anything but — as a sort of peaceful, whimsical, happy-go-lucky techno-futurist corporate utopian — and that rather than see this pose as absurd, many people, Googlers and Google users alike, buy it.”
(My emphasis) This is where John and my opinions diverge. My experience of Google and Googlers is that they really are something other than a ruthless, greedy competitor, just as my experience of Apple and Apple-folk is something other than a ruthless, greedy machine to vacuum up all my spare cash (something they’ve been remarkably effective at).
Yes, they are ruthless and arrogant. But they are not only that. If they were only that, they wouldn’t be a company capable of producing great products.
The myths that a company tells about itself aren’t just for public consumption: they are the method that you use to set who you are and what you do apart. The statements that Jobs and Ive made about Apple being at the “intersection of technology and the liberal arts” and “our goal isn’t to make money” are exactly this kind of myth. And they are, undoubtedly, genuinely and whole-heartedly believed – because without that kind of belief in a purpose beyond simply making money, creative people find their creativity shrivelling up and dying.
The myths that Google tells itself (and the outside world) are the same: genuinely, wholeheartedly believed by the company from the top down (probably with the exception of some hard-nosed finance people in both cases – but they are a breed apart). This isn’t just a question of marketing or spin. In order to do the work they need to do, they need to believe those myths.
All the truly great companies of our age begin and grow with a fundamental tension at their heart, pulled by two strands which, if the founders are not careful, will pull it apart. On the one hand, they want to build a business, to be a machine for making money; on the other, they want (to borrow Steve Jobs’ phrase) to put a ding in the world, to change it, for the better. Google and Apple are both cut from this cloth, and both have this tension at their heart.
Even Microsoft began with this tension. Microsoft’s founding mission was “A computer on every desk and in every home,” something that was crazily radical in 1975. But even then, Gates knew that building the money-making machine was the only way to achieve this vision: the mission statement added “…running Microsoft software”.
Microsoft’s problem is that the first part of its vision was achieved, and nothing ever filled that void – leaving it with just the money-making part. The visions of Apple and Google, on the other hand, still remain unfulfilled, which is why both of them will continue to make great products for many years to come.
John is absolutely right that Google is perfectly happy to take all the mashed potatoes. But like Apple, it also has the gravy of a genuine, heart-felt desire to change the world for the better, to make amazing stuff which enriches people’s lives. And it’s that, rather than the mashed potatoes, which defines who it is and what makes it great.