Saturday, December 22, 2007

Google vs. Google

Google seems a bit schizophrenic right now. On the one hand, some at Google are promoting its own Linux mobile stack (aka the gPhone) based on its Android acquisition. The goal is to have an open stack that commoditizes mobile phones, reducing the power of handset makers and particularly those that use software as a differentiator.

On the other hand, others at Google are working to deliver the best possible Google experience on the iPhone, by modifying Google’s web applications so that they are convenient to use, and show off the iPhone to its best advantage. Google even has an entire Mac-specific blog. Not surprisingly, some of the Mac-focused Googloids are Apple alumni, most notably Scott Knaster, the first manager of Apple’s Macintosh Developer Tech Support (MacDTS). (Of course, Google CEO Eric Schmidt remains on Apple’s board of directors).

On the one hand, these strategies are not perfectly aligned; however, they are not working completely at cross purposes, in that both are about mobile phone users having a better user experience with Google web applications.

On the other hand, it’s the sign of a healthy tech company to not try enforce a complete company-wide mandate, but instead to promote internal competition, bottom-up emergent strategies. Google’s 20 percent time policy is designed to do exactly this, building a culture that encourages such experimentation.

The one problem is that this depends on a huge amount of organizational slack, supported by Google’s obscene gross margins. The problem is that such margins are temporary — just ask IBM, Apple, Microsoft, or for that matter, the big three TV networks or your local newspaper monopoly.

When push comes to shove, the 20 percent rule will be gone, just like similar cultural shifts hit IBM, Apple and HP. I’m not claiming I know when it will happen, only that either the industry- or firm-specific effects delivering these margins will eventually be competed away. It will be years or maybe even a decade, but it will happen.

When the slack is gone, will such bottom-up initiative still be encouraged? Carly Fiorina, in her by-the-numbers approach to build “the new HP,” did her best to stamp out Bill and Dave’s concept of “the HP Way.” When that time comes for Google, Larry, Sergey and Eric will be long gone.

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