Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Google's rites of passage

Last month, author Randy Stross presented a talk at San José State based on his new book, Planet Google. Randy is not only an experienced author, but also a fellow (and considerably more senior) faculty member in the Department of Organization & Management where I work.

The video and audio of his presentation has now been posted to College of Business pages within SJSU’s content area at iTunes U. Due to size limits, the talk is posted in two parts: the prepared presentation and the Q&A. The quality of the video is remarkably good (and with the rest of iTunes U, the price is right).

Randy’s talk was about Google growing up — or at least, Google learning that the world expected it to grow up rather than act like a small insignificant startup anymore. This has obvious parallels to Microsoft a decade earlier, just as Nick Carr observed in other aspects of Google’s strategy and market influence.

In fact, Randy opened his talk by saying this “is not just a business story, but a business and society story — a company that I would argue that is far more powerful than Microsoft was at its apogee in the 1990s.” He presented three ministories — rites of passage — as Google learned to go beyond search to become the diversified Internet conglomerate that it is today. In each case, Google had to deal with unexpected controversy.

The first was Google books. Google wants to organize the world’s information, and books are usually of better quality and not available in digital form. Some of this is out of copyright stuff in university libraries, in which a human being turns pages in front of a digital camera. He also commented on Google’s plans — particularly for current books — ran headlong into the expectations and IP rights of established book publishers. The result was a lawsuit (which, as it turns out, was settled earlier this week).

The second example was Google Maps. The mapping solution had too much data to run entirely as a web app, so Google needed a client-side application. It bought startup Keyhole (also in Mountain View), which had trouble monetizing the digital mapping technology it created almost 20 years ago. Maps also forced Google to confront US regulations on spy satellite data and to eventually launch its own satellites (while conforming to those regulations). Tied into Maps was the controversial decision to provide street view images, and the unexpected uproar over what many saw as an invasion of the “privacy by obscurity” that they previous enjoyed in public spaces.

The third story was about Google Apps, its SaaS challenge to Microsoft Office that includes e-mail and documents. Randy went to a 2006 pitch that Google and Microsoft made to the entire 23-campus Cal State University system, where Microsoft sought to emphasize all the risks and uncertainties of Google’s (free to universities) application package. Google had to realize that if it wanted people to upload their data to Google’s servers, it had to provide a higher level of reliability, data integrity and privacy than it had ever promised before.

Together, the three stories suggest to me a Google that has the arrogance to assume it always has the right answer. It wants the rest of the world to give it free reign (again, like the Beast of Redmond). After all, they’ve promised “to do no evil”: what other reassurance do we need?

After studying Google for several years, Randy believes he can trust Google when it’s openly talking about the privacy (or other) tradeoffs it faces when trying to make its billions while living up to its mantra. What gets him worried is when they don’t publicly acknowledge the ethical or moral issues that it faces. As he concluded:

But if they revert to corporatespeak with rote reassurance, this is a company that will know more about us than any entity — public or private — in the world. I don’t want rote reassurances.
Overall, it was a clear and stimulating talk that provided fresh insight into the secretive Monster of Mountain View — one that I might have hoped from someone who devoted two years of his life to providing a definitive account. I recommend the talk to those who have not bought the book or are debating whether to do so. (My copy of the book arrived from Amazon and I hope to read it in the coming week).

I encouraged our media staff to record and post the talk, and I wish we did it more often. Being here in Silicon Valley, we often have speakers like this whose talks would be of great interest to the outside world, such as the ongoing speaker series of the Silicon Valley Center for Entrepreneurship.

However, SJSU (like some other CSU campuses is adopting a very strict interpretation of Federal accessibility guidelines that requires a written transcript to be posted for any oral presentation. Such a bureaucratic imperative from the state (and ultimately the Feds, i.e. the ADA) increases the cost of posting, delays its availability (as it did here) and limits what we post to a small number of talks where we can identify funding to cover the transcription cost. In the name of being fair to a few, we severely limit the information we provide to all.

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