Tag Archives: Steven Levy

Google’s “proprietary information” (or, what makes Google money stays in Google)

From Steven Levy’s marvellous new book on Google:

“[Google] was becoming less a research project than an Internet start-up run from a private university. Page and Brin’s reluctance fo write a paper about their work had become notorious in the department. ‘People were saying ‘Why is this so secret? This is an academic project, we should be able to know how it worked’ says Terry Winograd.

Page, it seemed, had a conflict about information. On one hand, he subscribed heartily to the hacker philosophy about shared knowledge… But he also had a strong sense of protecting his hard-won proprietary information.” (My emphasis)

This pattern of sharing everything except the information and code which actually makes you money was set very early, and continues to this day. You can see it with Android: The bits which Google gives away aren’t the ones which define “the Android experience” for customers, like Gmail, YouTube and Maps, but the code which allows geeks to tinker. And, of course, the algorithms and data which makes Google its money via advertising remain very, very securely under lock and key.

I should say at this point: There’s nothing morally objectionable about this approach. But I think that this tension between what’s open and what’s closed at Google will, sooner or later, be something that forces the company to redefine itself.

Levy’s book, incidentally, is full of gems like this, and I’d highly recommend it.

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The benefit of hindsight

I’ve been reading Steven Levy’s excellent The Perfect Thing recently. If you haven’t looked at it, and you’re interested in Apple, it’s well-worth a read – it’s the story of the iPod, and the thoughts that went into it. It also includes that rarest of things, some real substantive interview time with Jobs.

The story of how one Slashdot editor refered to the iPod as “lame” on its release is well known, but that’s often forgotten is that he wasn’t the only one – not by a long, long way. Even hardcore Mac fans were, to put it mildly, sceptical. Take a look through MacRumors threads at the time, and you come up with some gems:

“Any way you spin this it is:
1. Not revolutionary. Big capacity mp3 players already exist. With Creative Labs’ entrance into the firewire arena, future nomads will have similar specs and better prices.
2. A bad fit. This product is outside Apple’s core competancy – computing devices. When many are calling for a pda, they release an MP3 player.
3. Without a future. This Christmas you will see mp3 players be commoditized. Meaning that the players from Korea will be way less expensive tha iPod. The real money is in DRM and distribution (ala Real Musicnet). If Apple were smart they would be focusing on high gross revenue from services rather than a playback device.”

Everything in this post – literally, ever substantive point – proved to be absolutely, totally wrong. The iPod did start a revolution; Apple is arguably more famous now for its music players than computers; and oh boy, did iPod have a future. Real Musicnet? Oh dear.

And it’s not the only one. The majority of comments are pretty similar.

I was lucky: as a Mac journalist, I got to hold one in my hands when it was launched (there was, as I remember, only actually one in the country at the time – I didn’t get to take it away). I ordered my own the same day, because as soon as you held one in your hands, you knew you had to have it, that it really was something incredibly beautiful, incredibly cool.

I wonder how hindsight will look upon the iPad.

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