A lot of talk has been brought up in geeky circles recently about this new social network called Google+. Even the name itself been talked (and/or argued) about. Is it Google+ or Google Plus? Who knows? Who cares, right?
Normally, I wouldn’t care. And I’m still not even sure that I care at all. The reason this is on my radar is because it’s a service/product from Google. Google and I tend to have a love/hate relationship. It’s a wonderful company for tools and services that pretty much just work (at least most of them).
A Little History
Google seems to have been around forever. In fact, sitting here now, I can’t remember what I used as a search engine before Google. I’m not even sure the term “search engine” was even commonly known, even though there were certainly predecessors to Google in that space. Lycos, Yahoo, AltaVista, AskJeeves, just to name a few. The majority of these predecessors, with the exception of possibly Yahoo, don’t even exist anymore. That’s how dominate Google has been, and is, in the search engine space.
But now, Google has its hands in so many more industries. They are an email service provider. A productivity apps service. A photo editing service. A team collaboration service. A mapping service. A browser maker. A smartphone/tablet operating system maker. Even a smartphone handset maker. And now, a social network service. Given all of the areas that Google is in now, it’s hard say where they’re going and/or what industry they will break in to next. I mean, why not?
The major issue that I have with Google is complicated. Like I said, I have used (and still use) Google’s core product, search, each and every day. Like it or not, it is the best search engine out there. I use it. Jayme uses it. Work uses it. My sister uses it. Even my dad uses it. And if you can get my dad to use anything on the computer consistently, you’ve done something right.
My problem is they’re increasingly sticking their hands into every facet of our online lives. Think about it. Email: Gmail. Photo Sharing: Picasa. Social Network: Google+. Search: Google.com. Applications: Google Apps. Cloud storage: Google Cloud. Maps: Google Maps. Browser: Google Chrome. None of which, on its face, is bad. But, why are they in all of these businesses? Search works great. They make plenty of money on search alone, right? Yes, they do. But, they could make that much MORE money if they are in all of these areas.
The reason lies within how their business model works. They make money by getting people’s eyeballs (for ads) and collecting/collating/manipulating/processing user data. They gather all kinds of data. Search terms. Search trends. Photo types. Face in photos. Location information. Social trends. Browsing habits. Browsing behavior. Storage usage. What do they do with all of this data? Very simple. They sell it. They sell it to the highest bidder. Good ole’ American capitalism at work. They sell user data to all kinds of third-party companies looking for ways to advertise their own products/services to their customers. That’s the simple explanation, anyway.
You see, you are the product they are selling. And by “you”, I actually mean your online profile. They have your name, location, email, phone number, likes, dislikes, places you’ve traveled, people you interact with, files you’ve uploaded, emails you’ve received and written, pictures you’ve taken, terms you’ve searched for, results you’ve clicked on, people on your contact list, people you call, people you text, and all of the other spider-webby type of information that they can get their hands on. They know everything about your online life.
That is, assuming you use their services. But, hey, why would you not use their services? They’re free, after all! Gmail is free. Picasa is free. Google+ will be free. Google Maps is free. Google.com is obviously free. Google Apps is free. Google Chrome is free. I’m not sure they have a single publicly facing product/service that is not free (with the lone exception of the “pro” Google Apps accounts). And that’s how they get you. It’s free. It’s convenient. And it’s available on any computer on any operating system, whether that be Windows, Mac, Linux, or something else. It’s brilliant, when you think about it.
Privacy is dead
But it’s also terrifying, if you think about it deep enough. Like I said, because they have all of these services and because they make it convenient and free, they have EVERYTHING about you if you let them. They know all of that stuff I mentioned above. Couple that with their proven business model of selling data and you have yourself the end of any kind of online privacy whatsoever.
“Don’t be evil” has been Google’s motto from the very beginning. The founders wanted a simple (some would say naively simple) motto to always remind themselves and others that a company can do a successful business while keeping their morality and ethics intact. I call BS on that, but that’s my cynicism talking. What’s interesting here is the “to who” aspect of that statement. Don’t be evil to who? Their customers? Their customers who use these services everyday and rely on them to do business or keep in touch with family and friends? That sounds great, even a little heartwarming. But, I would argue that those people, that audience, is not Google’s real customer. Google’s real customers are ad buyers. They are the people who purchase this sliced-and-diced data from Google. They are ultimately the ones who pay for these services that Google releases to the public for free. And, publicly, that’s why Google is regarded as all warm and fuzzy. And (dare I say) open. No, Google’s customers are not the end user.
“Wait, I gave them all this data voluntarily, right? I used and produced this data in Google’s services, yes, but surely they’re not using this information for harm or anything like that?” No, of course they’re not. At least not directly. At least they claim they don’t. Can you believe them? I guess you kind of have to. What other choice do you have? The only real choice is to not use their services.
Okay, so what do you use for these types of online services? Where do you go that has this many services around one “centralized” ecosystem? There really are only two others in this landscape currently: Apple and Microsoft. They have a somewhat similar range of differentiated services (though neither have replacements for all of Google’s services) out there for consumers to use.
But, aren’t one of those two companies capable of doing the same thing? Potentially, yes. But, here’s where dogma, fanboy-ism, and loyalty meet and collide. It comes down to who do you believe has the potential to be as (hypothetically) “evil” as Google? Whose business model is selling user data? Whose business goals are to throw out that “free” lure and hope to get a bite from a large enough group of “willing” fish that they can make a profit off of their usage? Who has the potential to be the Empire if Google goes down for some reason? I would argue neither one, to be honest.
Microsoft’s business model is one thing, sell software. Let me say that again. SELL software. They don’t really give software out for free except when it’s a lure to buy more Microsoft software (and more expensive software) based on that initial free use case. For example, they do give away a database engine (SQL Server Express) for anyone to use for anything. Except that when your business grows big enough, the limitations of the free software are exposed. What do you (or your business) do then? Well, you look to Microsoft for the non-free version. After all, your business systems are based off of this core now. It’s got to be more expensive to change the core of the business, right? So, how much is the non-free version? Like all things, that depends. How “best practices” friendly would like to be? If all the way, maybe $100K. If part way, maybe $15-20K. The point is, that free piece of software was designed for the sole purpose to “lock you in” to using their (Microsoft’s) platform and their software. They perfected this practice long before Google ever existed.
Insidious? Yes. Evil? Well, that point could be argued. Directly evil? No. Potentially dangerous for you? I don’t think so.
And what about Apple? Exactly, what about Apple? Apple famously sells hardware. Period. Yes, they sell some software, too. But that’s niche stuff that is geared for a certain market of people. We’re talking about mass appeal software and/or services. They don’t have any. (Granted, they’re introducing something called iCloud in a couple of months that could change my whole argument. But, nobody knows exactly how it works quite yet, so we’ll save that for another day.) MobileMe is probably the closest thing they have to replicating some of the functionality of Google’s services. But MobileMe costs (or did cost) $99/year. They have their money. Besides, Apple is about building an ecosystem. A hardware ecosystem. In my house right now sits an iMac, two MacBook Pros, an AppleTV, two iPhones, 3 iPod Touches, and 1 iPod Shuffle. A roughly $6,200 spend on Apple hardware alone. And they get the best margins in the entire industry for their products. In fact, there was a recent study that said HP has to sell 7 computers to make the profit that Apple makes with 1 computer. That’s staggering.
Personally, I don’t think Apple would ever get in the data collection business because I don’t think Apple NEEDS to do that. And if you can say anything about Apple, Apple doesn’t do things because other people say they NEED to do something. In that sense, they certainly make up their own rules.
I don’t think the people who work at Google are evil. I don’t even think the people who actually run Google are necessarily evil. But, they seem to be the company who has the most potential and/or opportunity to be. It makes me shudder every time I hear them announce a new venture into a new part of my online life. I shouldn’t have to shudder at that. Call it 1984. Call it the Empire. I just don’t like it. And therefore, I’m inclined to not like them.
I do actually use Gmail right now. I’ve been using it for years. Why? Because it was free. At the time, there was a shortage of free email services that weren’t named Hotmail or didn’t have some kind of storage cap on them. So, I signed up. I think I’ve reached a place where it’s time to move away from that service and away from Google.
Where will I be going? If you know me, you already know the answer to this question. Here’s a hint: They’re really good cold and crisp.