I greatly admire what Google has achieved. From working together on a search engine called BackRub at Stanford in 1996, Larry Page and Sergey Brin have grown Google to a market capitalisation of $270 billion today. Over those 17 years, Google has undoubtedly been one of the major forces shaping the Web.
More recently, some of the unquestioning admiration for Google is beginning to peel away. That’s totally expected in the context of huge growth but has Google really gone a full circle from ‘Don’t be evil‘ to evil? Microsoft certainly wants us to believe that with its Scroogled attack.
Back in the late 1990s, things were more black and white. Microsoft was overwhelmingly dominant and used that dominance to crush competitors. The Department of Justice fought Microsoft with an antitrust law case, leaving a deep impact on the company. Microsoft was widely perceived to be the ‘Evil Empire’. Typifying those days was the first of the browser wars in which Microsoft wiped out the much loved Netscape.
Meanwhile, minnow Google focussed on its mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” ‘Don’t be evil’ was a simplistic yet typically Google way of encapsulating the values it stood for. It deliberately tried to fly under Microsoft’s radar for as long as possible.
Fast forward to now
Since then, Google’s dominance in search and online advertising has drawn sharp commercial responses. The changing fortunes of Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon have largely defined the Web. It’s no longer easy to see the Internet in a simplistic black and white way.
Google’s made many mistakes along the way. So has every other company in the industry. Given Google’s size and the popularity of its services, the company’s mistakes are very public and have widespread impact around the world. For me, the top three ‘evil’ mistakes are:
- A refusal to come clean and take full responsibility for the privacy violations while collecting wifi data for Street View.
- The launch of Google Buzz as an ‘opt-out’ rather than ‘opt-in’ social network.
- Legal but increasingly untenable tax minimisation practices.
Others will have their own list of Google’s ‘evil’ mistakes. For example, protecting intellectual property often invokes emotional responses which perhaps explains why Google’s steps in video (YouTube) and books (Google Books) have so many angry with the company. With big commercial stakes, search and advertising practices are also going to draw emotional responses. There are also puzzling steps like shutting down Google Reader.
At the same time, some of Google’s practices have set a high bar for other Web players. In particular, I am a big fan of its Transparency Report, the engineering advances at the network level, and Android.
Don’t be evil
This was a superb phrase for its time. Clearly such simplicity is long gone. Perhaps the time has come to move on from evaluating Google in emotional terms such as ‘evil’.
As for Microsoft’s Scroogled move, the full circle is not in terms of evil but success. In the ongoing digital wars, it’s a small indicator of how far Microsoft and Google have come from the 1990s. Scroogled is just a footnote.