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Google Contra Mundum

Those who’ve never been humbled believe there’s a rational explanation for this fact. In the world of technology vendor sports, Google has had numerous product failures, but it’s never really been humbled. Apple was on the verge of closing its doors. It was only an investment by Bill Gates’s Microsoft that kept the company alive. Microsoft itself lost an anti-trust case and was shackled for years. Facebook’s IPO has proved a humbling experience to the most recent master of the universe.

It was Microsoft’s reaching for the stars, it’s total domination of computer operating systems and office automation software that provided the model of what could be done. Given the size and scope of the known computing universe, their domination seemed to be total and everlasting. Of course, we know now that the universe continued to expand. The distances connecting the various functions of computing were distributed across the network of networks. Text became hypertext and the glyphs themselves were used to encode any media type for transmission across the Network. Suddenly, it was a whole new ball game.

Google claims as its mission the task of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. To some extent, Google accomplished this with its search engine product. The product has entered the common parlance, and now we talk of ‘Googling’ something. Google means search, and search is its big driver of revenues and profits. The funding for all its other products rests on the back of search. This allows them to enter established markets without the burden of turning a profit. Microsoft used this tactic when it launched the Internet Explorer web browser as a free product. Suddenly there was no such thing as a ‘web browser’ business.

One of the interesting characteristics of Google is that it doesn’t partner well. In the end, as a corporate philosophy, it believes that anything you can do, it can do better. It buys companies rather than partner with them. Google’s commitment to the open web and open source computing is the one area where they do create partnerships. Although these partnerships can’t be said to exist on an equal basis. Even in these open partnerships Google dominates.

In Geoffrey B. West’s talk for the Long Now Foundation, called “Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster” he addresses the issue of the lifespan of a corporation. As they become more regular in structure, they become more brittle. If we look at a listing of the current S&P 500, we find a startling fact:

The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today, according to Professor Richard Foster from Yale University.

In the age of the ecological thought, we should ask whether the empire building dreams of the old Microsoft are a reasonable corporate mission. Is it still possible for any corporation really dominate the technical universe on its own? Apple, one the world’s biggest corporations, has arrived at its current position through carefully negotiated partnerships with the carriers, the music industry, the film industry and software application and game developers. Apple’s more humble approach to partnerships seemed to start when a partnership saved its life.

“Apple doesn’t have to lose for Microsoft to Win. Microsoft doesn’t have to lose for Apple to win”

– Steve Jobs

Even Microsoft doesn’t believe in the old Microsoft. For example, they now offer Linux on Windows Azure. They’ve been very friendly to the JQuery and Drupal open source projects. It appears they’ve learned something about coexistence. Interestingly, the one area where Microsoft always had partners was in hardware. With announcement of Surface, that dynamic is going to change.

Google’s Android is the direct analog to Microsoft’s Windows. The difference being that Google subsidizes Android; it’s generally provided for free to its partners. Although if you’ve read anything about gift economies, you know that something given for free creates an obligation of a different sort.

When you look at the scope of Google’s products, it becomes clear that organizing the world’s information actually requires them to mediate every human contact with the world. The world itself becomes an unbundled, chaotic swirl of qualities. It’s just color and light, textures and shapes, never resolving into objects. To get an understanding of how Google sees itself mediating and rendering the world, making it accessible and useful, take a look at their new television commercial for the Nexus 7. A father and son, camping in nature—what could possibly come between them?

It could be that Google is the harbinger of a new era of philosopher kings, or perhaps we should call them engineer kings. And perhaps a king who has never been humbled can rule with humanity and wisdom. On the other hand, Google’s harmartia may lie in its belief that there’s a rational explanation for why it’s never been humbled.

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