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…and gravy

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.

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  • http://twitter.com/cimota Matt Johnston

    I guess it depends on whether you count the less-than-great things Google has done and the things they have done which rankle with me. It’s not about how Android still feels (on the latest hardware) like a shoddy copy, it’s not how they killed Reader (because of the lack of investment I’d moved elsewhere anyway) and it’s not that they buy a load of cool things (and then euthanise them), it’s just about the lies.

    Starting out here: http://www.appleoutsider.com/2010/05/20/google-rewrites-history/

    And I believe this lie to be much more harmful than a simple restating of a mission for the future. This is rewriting what actually happened to justify crimes in the past.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    I’m not so sure that’s rewriting history. There’s two ways to read what Gundotra said (ignoring that he was almost certainly guilty of hyperbole either way):

    1. He was referring to the iPhone. It would certainly be rewriting history if Google didn’t know about the iPhone, and how good it was likely to be. But Google probably did know about the iPhone, given that development on it startd around the same time Google bought Android (whether it was before or after isn’t known).

    2. He was referring (which much hype) more generically: the mobile phone market was likely to end up with one dominant player, and that was something Google wanted to avoid.

    Certainly, that last bit is true: Android was essentially a defensive move designed to ensure that no one company could dominate mobile in a way which would allow them to lock Google search out of the platform. Hence giving it away, rather than seeing it as a direct revenue stream.

  • http://mostlythis.com Mac Morrison


  • dbabbage

    Fundamentally, the product Google is crafting is *me*, and the customer they wish to delight is their advertisers. In that, Google and Apple are utterly, utterly unalike.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    This is one of those things that’s kind of true, but kind of not.

    Back when I was a print journalist (happy times, happy times) the way we made all the serious money was ads. Lots and lots of ads. At the time, we were producing a magazine which cost (iirc) £2.50 on the newstand. Had we carried no ads, to make the same revenue we would have had to charge £10. In a very real sense, our “customers” were the advertisers, not the readers.

    However, we never thought like that for one simple reason: the moment you start creating a product to please advertisers, you stop making something readers want. And with no readers, you get end up with no advertisers anyway. This is why the “Chinese wall” between editorial and ad sale evolved. It’s not some hippy-dippy “ethics” thing, it’s simple a practical way of ensuring you produce something which readers want, because attracting readers is what makes you attractive to the real “customers” – the advertisers.

    Google is in a similar position. It has to forget that advertisers, not users, pay the bills – because if it needs the users in order to be attractive to advertisers. So it has to produce a search engine which gives the most relevant results, an email service which always works (ha!) and is great to use, etc. etc. Unless people use them, those services are valueless to Google – so they have to be good for the user.

  • mark

    Unlike your magazine, Google isn’t creating content. They use other people’s content to attract viewers and advertisers.

    > it needs the users’ [data] in order to be attractive to advertisers.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    But Google is creating services, which, like a magazine, are a channel designed to attract users/readers in order to sell their eyeballs to advertisers.

    Magazines, too, want user’s data to maximise the attractiveness to advertisers. That’s why they make subscriptions so cheap: they know more about subscribers than newstand buyers, which makes it easier to sell ad space to advertisers.

    On my magazine, we had an 80% subscription rate at one point, which pushed up the cost per page to enormous amounts. Even though our competitors sold many more copies, our ad rates were much higher, because we had that audience of subscribers.

  • http://twitter.com/aravindnaidu Aravind Naidu

    Hi Ian, A very thoughtful post and congrats on putting an alternate point of view. I use Apple myself and Android and like Apple and Google equally and I find it painful to sometimes read rabid posts from John Gruber et all presenting a very parochial point of view where everything anti-apple is evil

  • mark

    I understand how it works, but it’s a business model that will always make Google’s offerings less attractive to me when there are good alternatives available.

    Search and Maps are excellent, and I use them often. I think their other products are best left to the truly price-concious.

    I’m old, and completely burned out on what advertising did to radio, television and the internet.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    And that’s a good thing, I think – the ideal is that people get to choose between paid or ad supported (or, like Apple’s software services stuff, supported by an initial hardware sale). Choice is good.

  • Space Gorilla

    Perhaps it’s just me, but each Google service I’ve used seems mediocre. I find myself wishing it was better, easier to use, better designed, not so junky, etc, etc. Probably maps is the best Google experience I’ve had (excepting search of course), and I wouldn’t say maps is great. There seems to be a lot of talk about Google and how they can do great things. Where are these great things? I see a lot of half-assed things.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    Yeah, some are good, some are bad, some are middling. Search is awesome, and the Knowledge Graph stuff can be astounding. Maps is good, but the new Maps looks amazing (I am dying to see the Earth in space).

    Google+ has always been a bit “meh” for me, but I love the new interface and I’m finding that’s making it much more a place I want to use. Gmail is OK – better than most webmail, but still not awesome. And Drive is a bit mixed, but I still use it quite a lot.

    I’m glad that Page is clearing out some of the dross and dead wood, even though it means my beloved Reader is dying.

  • http://twitter.com/mknopp Mike Knopp

    Google isn’t evil because they are anti-Apple, they achieved that all on their own.

    I have to completely agree with Dbabbage. I have no interest in dealing with a company whose entire business seems to rely on them using *me* instead of me paying to use them (their product).

    Is Google hypocritical? I believe that they are, but also believe that they aren’t likely aware of it. From listening to Page speak, I truly think that he truly believes what he says.

    My response to that is a very old, and cliched quote, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Sayings don’t become cliche by being false. I see Google’s business model as the apple on the tree of knowledge or Pandora’s box. If the world accepts their offer the consequences will not be good. At least not in my mind, but in people like Page’s mind, I guess things are different.

    After all, if you use Google’s products be very aware that Page’s view of privacy is, “If you don’t want people to know about it. You likely shouldn’t be doing it.”Think about that the next time you are looking up medical info on something you don’t want people knowing about or looking for a new job. Page thinks that these things should be public knowledge. Do you?

  • Randy Magruder

    “I have to completely agree with Dbabbage. I have no interest in dealing with a company whose entire business seems to rely on them using *me* instead of me paying to use them (their product).”

    So you also don’t watch any television programs with commercials, right? You don’t attend any sporting events with ads and banners for products? Rrrrright. Sorry, but this is just dumb. Google is just taking advertising driven content to the medium of the Internet. If entirely payment driven content were going to work, commercials on television wouldn’t exist, and you’d pay for every episode of every TV Program you watch. This happens, of course, for on-demand viewing, but it is NOT the primary business model.

  • Space Gorilla

    Uh, you should maybe look into how fast Netflix is growing. Consumers don’t like ads on TV, consumers don’t like all the ad banners at events and the naming rights goo either. Going forward in a world where micropayments and distribution are easier/possible, I’d say Google’s current business model is a weakness. Maybe they can transition, but that requires creating things that are so great people will pay for them. I’m not confident Google can do that.

  • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

    the larger problem is that because Google’s true customers are advertisers, when you get away from the things that advertisers directly use, you discover the rampant, “I don’t give a fuck” quality to Google’s software, along with their active punishment for people who use non-google methods to access those services. Oh, and they are some creepy assholes.

    for example…

    1) Google supports CardDAV in literally the most half-assed, we-have-a-filled-checkbox way imaginable. If you have a company with hundreds of people using Google Applications for Enterprise, you’d imagine that CardDAV would be pretty handy, because yay, autofill, easy contact lookup. Nope. It has zero access to the main directory. It only works for contacts you add to your contact application. Da fuque?

    2) The management console for GApE is a mess. When adding people to groups, sometimes autofill works, sometimes it doesn’t. I can configure POP access for the entire instance, but IMAP can only be configured from within individual accounts, or via direct API calls, which is how GAM does it.

    3) Even though we’re using GApE, and paying for it, new accounts still have to go through the friggin’ same ToS approval crap that free accounts do.

    4) Can’t use IMAP with Gmail? Here’s probably why: https://support.google.com/mail/answer/97150?hl=en

    that’s just the surface of how amazingly halfassed Google products that don’t create ad revenue can be. My list is far, far longer. on the creepy side.

    5) Google in fact, does do far more than just lightly machine scan your content for ad services. They have humans reading it and making decisions about your account status based on that. From http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2013/04/22/dumped-by-google/

    In case you’re wondering, in the end, I was fortunate. By Monday, a Googler filed the right internal escalation paperwork on my behalf and on Tuesday morning, six days after I lost access to my account, relayed that it had been restored.

    My data was intact save for the last thing I’d worked on–a spreadsheet containing a client’s account numbers and passwords. It seems that Google’s engineers determined this single document violated policy and locked down my entire account. My request to get that document back is still pending.

    That’s not “up to the creepy line and stopping”, that’s “INTO THE CREEPY POOL FOR A CREEPY PARTY WITH ALL MY CREEPY FRIENDS”

  • alandanziger

    Google certainly did know about the iPhone, given that the CEO of Google was on Apple’s board of directors at the time. I don’t really see how that is open to question.

  • http://twitter.com/dporter6 David Porter

    Television ads are a one-way thing- they’re not reading my email, collecting my location data, remembering bits and pieces of the conversation I’ve been having within earshot of the tv, or anything that could personally identify me.

    What is “dumb” is the myopic comparison you made.

  • stevesup

    Years ago, in my little town, a “shopper” built a niche next to the local “paper.” It was ninety percent ads. That was its service and it succeeded. Over the years it evolved into the paper of record for the town.

    Google’s like that: Today it’s a shopper. But it wants to build super services no one else will be able to imitate and that it can use to intimidate and dominate. Just like Microsoft did. Cus’ like Microsoft, Google destroys; it does not partner.

    Or do you believe the Soviet era Google Glass pub shots with soft glistening eyes looking toward a glorious future?

  • http://twitter.com/mhlynka Markian Hlynka

    “People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.” -Simon Sinek

    Watch the TED talk.

  • Tom Insam

    Schmidt was elected to Apple’s board of directors on August 28, 2006. Google bought Android in 2005.

  • http://macsmiley.tumblr.com/ MacSmiley

    Agreed with David Porter. Google wants to “interoperate” with my brain. Create advertising that is art and I’ll enjoy watching it. Making ads that tie into my personal communications with others is just plain stalking.

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