I’ve said on many occasions before that while I often find Google’s products underwhelming, I really do admire their ambition. What Project Glass amounts to is the next natural step in creating a cloud of data around the physical world.
If you want to start a flame war, post something about whether Google is truly “open” or not. Nothing in the world of technology – not even comments on the state of Steve Jobs’ health – is more likely to get people shouting at each other.
Amongst sections of the Mac community, Google gets a lot of stick over its openness. Some criticise Google for putting “open” above “usable”. Others claim that openness is nothing more than a marketing bullet point for Google, and point to its failure to release source code for Honeycomb or its total silence over the core algorithms that power search and ads.
I don’t think Google’s openness is “just” a way to mislead – I genuinely think that internally, there’s a lot of commitment to being as open as is commensurate with being a profitable company.
Some of their efforts are extremely valuable: for example, while I think WebM is crapola, it’s valuable to have a freely-licensable codec that will (hopefully) be widely supported. I doubt that MPEG-LA would have been as generous with the terms for H.264 as they are currently had Google not waved the big stick. And that’s an area where there’s little direct revenue implication for Google.
Having said that, it’s clear that at some point internally, the idea got floated that “we are open” was a good marketing point, and that’s where things began to go wrong. It’s almost impossible for a company which creates code, delivers online services, or (for that matter) makes hardware to be genuinely open. Google could never be open about its search algorithms, not simply because Bing would instantly be as good as Google but also because people would use that information to game the system.
And that’s the issue: Having invoked the magic “open” word, you’re a hostage to fortune. Any time that the rational decision is “don’t be open” (as it is, arguably, with Honeycomb’s source) sneering naysayers like me will be on your case, whacking you over the head.
“Or worse, they may visit an aggregator like Google News, browse a digital deli of expensive-to-produce news from around the world, and then click on an ad served up to them by Google. For which we get no return. By the absurd relentless chasing of unique user figures we are flag-waving our way out of business.”
In fact, what Bailey says makes a lot of sense when you remember the oft-forgotten fact about newspapers: as I’ve noted before, publishers are in the ad sales business, not the content sales business.
Content is the honey that draws the audience, and at the moment, Google is creaming off the people who are most-likely to respond at an ad at the point of search. The remaining traffic – if it is amenable to ads at all – is poor quality prospects. Google is a competitor as well as a source of traffic, and it’s an open question whether that traffic is high quality enough to be worth having.
What’s interesting is that Bailey doesn’t stop there, but actually puts forward a positive way that publishers can take a step forward – and it doesn’t revolve around cutting Google out of the equation.
“She called for a change to the accepted norms, arguing that publishers could ‘reverse the erosion of value in news content’ by rejecting a relentless quest for high user numbers, in favour of a move away from ‘generalised packages of news’ to instead concentrate on content with ‘unique and intrinsic value’.”
That sounds to me like Bailey is suggesting a strategy of less “me too” news stories and more attempts to make unique, insightful content – something that I think is a great idea. At the moment, the top story on Google News concerns the US journalist sentenced to gaol in Iran – and there are 1238 different publications writing about it, worldwide. How many of those get more than a tiny fraction of traffic from Google? How much of it is the kind of quality traffic – ie, traffic which will click on ads – that publishers care about?
In a sense, publishers obsession with number’s of page views reminds me of the race for users that most Web 2.0 start-ups have gone through. In both cases, it’s a question of “page views first, business model second” – and in both cases, that is a recipe for expenses without revenue. Which, in current vogue speech, is a case of businessfail.