Let's Face It: Google is the New Apple

Wednesday Mar 21st 2012 by Mike Elgan
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Everyone is confused about the new Google. Don’t be. It’s just becoming more like Apple. And that’s a good thing.

Everyone seems confused about Google these days.

A disgruntled former Google executive named James Whittaker last week posted a rant on the Microsoft blog called “Why I left Google.” (He now works at Microsoft.)

In the post, Whittaker said “The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.” He went on: “The days of old Google hiring smart people and empowering them to invent the future was gone. The new Google knew beyond doubt what the future should look like.”

Meanwhile, everyone from tech pundits to global regulatory officials has been freaking out about Google’s recent privacy policy changes. One example: The Asia Pacific Privacy Authorities group -- which represents privacy interests of Pacific countries like Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Mexico, New Zealand and South Korea -- wrote a letter to Google this month to express concerns.

The group said Google’s new privacy policy makes it harder for users to maintain different identities when using various Google services like Gmail, YouTube and Docs. (The group remains unvexed about the ability of, say, Facebook users to maintain different identities when using Facebook, Messages and Music.)

Reuters summarized Google’s recently privacy chances by parroting a common falsehood: Google’s new streamlined privacy policy “enables the Internet's most powerful company to dig even deeper into the lives of its more than 1 billion users.” (In fact, Google doesn’t learn more about users. It merely intends to apply personal data gathered on one service to increased relevance on the others.)

The public is confused, too. A new survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that preference for Google among search users has nearly doubled in the last eight years -- from 47% in 2004 to 83% today. Yet the same survey found that "nearly three-quarters of search engine users surveyed say they don't want search engines to mine their personal information to tailor results to their interests."

The confusion here is that affinity for Google is rising because of increasingly relevant results. They’re relevant in large part because of better personalization, something the public doesn’t understand. The survey is comparable to a survey asking people if they like cheese, and also asking people if they like bacteria in their food while it’s being made. They’ll be in favor of the former and against the latter, even though the latter is required for achieving the former.

All this confusion about Google is easily clarified. You see, Google is becoming more like Apple. This is a good thing for users, and a good thing for Google.

How Google is Becoming More Like Apple

Google was founded on a single idea and a single product. Founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page wanted only to create a better search engine. They believed in data, algorithms and the power of software engineering. So they hired a gazillion geniuses and turned them loose on the Internet. The company’s famous 20-percent time required Google engineers to invent new products in their spare time. Those personal pet projects could be turned into major Google offerings, such as Gmail.

The unique business model of Google was a kind of Survivor-like reality show to create hundreds of online and software products, and let the marketplace choose which would thrive and which would be voted off the island. Most would fail. Some would succeed brilliantly. Google’s Silicon Valley campus was a paradise for brilliant engineers -- resources and toys and junk food, but no adult supervision, no mandate to contribute to the company’s larger long-term goals.

But for non-employees, Google was less than a paradise. Google’s throw-the-pasta-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to everything seriously damaged Google’s reputation, and didn’t scale. Users and partners have repeatedly devoted a lot of resources to one Google product or another, only to see it unceremoniously shut down. Everything was always in “beta,” so corporations hesitated to embrace Google services. And the company suffered a growing identity crisis.

Let’s be clear: Google had no vision. And that was great for engineers, but lousy for users and for long-term business prospects.

But that changed one year ago when co-founder Larry Page replaced Eric Schmidt as the CEO of Google. Page took on his new role with a very clear vision -- to transform Google from inmates-running-the-asylum anarchy to visionary dictatorship. You know, like Apple.

Here are the three main ways Page is making Google more like Apple:

1. Vision

Google used to have no discernible vision. Just crank out as many products and services as possible, and let the market pick the winners and the losers.

All that changed a year ago. Now, the company knows exactly what it’s doing and where it’s going.

2. Design

Google services used to be anti-design. Plain-vanilla text everything. Ugly, boring and functional, Google products used minimal graphics, design and layout. But now, every new Google service exhibits a new, sophisticated design sensibility. The old ones do, too. The company has re-designed all its core services to match the beautifully designed Google+ design. The social network’s incredible Circles Editor and other features of the social network represent a 180-degree turn from the historic Google zero-design sensibility. They’re still minimalist. But they’re beautiful, with form and function uniting into an appealing whole.

The use of red throughout the new Google designs is particularly savvy. Google now uses the color red for every point on the page that demands action or attention.

There’s also persuasive rumor-mongering that Google’s hiring this week of Digg founder Kevin Rose, as well as some of the employees of Rose’s startup, Milk, was all about design. Apparently key engineers were not hired, but designers were. The idea is that Google’s new-found obsession with design is actually now driving acquisitions.

3. Integration

When the late Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt battled in a war of words over iOS and Android, Jobs slammed Google’s platform as “fragmented” and Apple’s as “integrated.”

The “fragmented”-”integrated” divide has always separated the fundamental approaches each company took to how it offered new products, services and features.

Apple historically launched, say, iPhone hardware, iTunes software, Internet services, apps like Mail, Phone, Safari, Messages and others all “integrated” together into a cohesive, singular user “experience.”

Google historically launched each product a la carte. Here’s Search. There’s Gmail. Docs is over there. Orkut is in Brazil. Each Google service was unconnected to the others.

The changes Google has undertaken in the past year involve moving Google from its historical fragmented approach to Apple’s integrated approach.

Gmail isn’t just Gmail. Gmail is now part of Google+, which is baked into Search, which integrates Translate, and so on. In fact all these formerly disparate services and many others are being gradually integrated into a single product called Google.

That’s why the privacy policies of dozens of Google services are being integrated under one umbrella privacy policy -- because the services themselves are being integrated.

The confusion about Google these days is easily clarified by understanding this basic fact about the company: Google is becoming more like Apple.

Instead of being devoid of vision, blind to design and taking a shotgun approach to pumping out fragmented products, Google is aggressively becoming visionary, design savvy and is integrating products for the benefit of users and advertisers alike.

Ultimately, the confusion arises from the fact that no major tech company has ever made this transition before. But breaking all the rules isn’t new for Google. It’s the one constant that has always existed for the company.

So instead of being confused, disgruntled, annoyed and paranoid about Google’s transformation, let’s instead simply understand it. Google is becoming more like Apple. And that’s a good thing.

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