Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Is Google Good or Evil?

Is Google a force for good or evil?

Glinda, the Good Witch of the North: Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?
Dorothy: I'm not a witch at all. I'm Dorothy Gale from Kansas.

A lot of people like to hate Google, simply because it is very big and successful.  When any company becomes big and successful, whether it be Microsoft or McDonald's, people like to hate it.  But Microsoft makes mediocre software and McDonald's makes mediocre hamburgers, so there is not a lot to like.

What about Google?

Google's corporate slogan was "Don't be Evil" which as seen as a dig against Microsoft and others, who try to monopolize a "space" in technology or the Internet - which of course usually backfires.  Google has become wildly popular, of course, mostly as a search engine.

But Google is so much more, of course.

To begin with, they have Gmail, which of the three major "free" e-mail services (Microsoft's Hotmail, Yahoo mail, and Gmail) is probably the best of the three, although they all have the same or similar "look and feel".

What sets Gmail apart is Google Docs.  When someone sends you an attachment in Gmail, you can "view" it in Google Docs, which will load a viewer that will display the document, and allow you to print and save it.  This is very handy when you are using a public computer or someone Else's computer and don't want to clutter their hard drive with your documents and attachments.  It is also handy in that you can display documents in various formats without having to have the corresponding program that created those documents, loaded on your computer.

Google Docs is like a virtual hard drive - your space in the "cloud" - and while a little primitive, it allows you to save files in directories and sub-directories (file folders) for later retrieval.

Google Docs also has a primitive word processor that allows you to create new documents as well.  So in theory, at least, you could work "in the cloud" today, using Google Docs - which is what Google is hoping you will do.

Picasa is Google's photo hosting site, and unlike many competitors, including Webshots and now, Facebook, you can post JPEGS to Picasa and they surprisingly remain as JPEGS and are not converted to some weird proprietary format.  And Picasa doesn't ask you to "tag" people in their photos.  Unlike Facebook, Google isn't trying to get you to con all your friends into "joining" some proprietary site like Facebook is - or tagging your friends without their permission.

Do no evil, right?  Facebook needs to learn that.

Moreover, Picasa can be used to host photos, so you can take a photo, upload it, and then paste the URL for the photo in to your eBay listing, web page, or whatever.

And of course, all of this is free.

But wait, there's more!

Yes, Google also runs Blogger, the site you are on now.  Blogger is a little clunky compared to some Blog sites, but it works well for me.  And again, it is free.  So what's not to like?

UPDATE October 2013:  Google also owns DROID, the largest smart phone operating system on the planet.   Google Chrome has not caught on as the most popular Internet Browser, but it is making inroads.  They also have Google Maps, self-driving cars, and well, a host of projects on the drawing board or in production.

So why do some folks hate Google?

Well, they are a business, and they do have to make money - all this commie crap about profits being bad aside (if you believe that, I can't help you).  So they sell ad space, and they do use your search queries and other data your submit to sell to marketers.

So, for example, I have posted several things about cruises.  Not surprisingly, a lot of ads that pop up on Google when I use it, are related to cruises.  When I mention Patents, patent ads appear, sometimes for odious Invention Broker companies.  They use your query data to tie into ads for related subject matter.

Of course, this sort of subject-matter ad linking sometimes backfires.

And of course, Google does take ad money from people who want their "hits" to be listed first for certain key word searches.  Invention brokers pay big money to be listed first for searched related to Patents.  But as I have noted before, one way to avoid trouble is to never click on any Internet ad, ever.  Look at Internet ads like you would police tape - as a means of marking off bad deals and outright rip-offs.

If you do see an ad that looks interesting, research the topic independently - usually searching on the keyword along with "ripoff" or "sucks" is instructive.  But 99 times out of 100, anything advertised on the Internet is a poor bargain.

So yes, Google takes ads and puts these paid hits at the top of the list.  BUT, you are free to ignore those hits, aren't you?  And without ads, Google wouldn't be able to pay the electricity bill for the servers.

Overall, I would have put down Google as "not evil" - in that they are providing an alternative to the O/S based concept of computing (Windows, Mac) and providing an alternative model (cloud computing) which I think, like everything else, will eventually catch on, after a lot of false starts and naysayers have their day.

UPDATE OCTOBER 2013:  I'd have to say my opinion of Google is morphing over time.   The company slogan "Don't be Evil" seems to have morphed over time.  Google seems to want to control the universe now - now that they have the power to do so.   Absolute power corrrupts, absolutely.

But like IBM, Microsoft, and others before them, Google will fail at this, simply because they are trying too hard.

The Google Search Engine - the jewel in the crown - is rapidly becoming tarnished, as it gets saturated with ads, and as more search "results" are filtered using data harvested from your e-mails.   For me, it is less and less useful as a search engine, as it gives me only results it thinks I want to see, rather than anything new and unusual.   As a result, the Internet - when viewed through Google - seems flat and two-dimensional, or perhaps three feet deep, at most.

The idea of capturing all of a user's life - cell phone, social networking, e-mail, internet browser, search engine, etc. into one massive company is likely to backfire.   Google today feels "creepy" as they want to get more and more "hooks" into you, and capture more and more data from you.   As a Google user, I feel I give more than I take.

Google is also starting to spend a lot of money on pie-in-the-sky ideas, like self-driving cars and such.   Yes, a self-driving car will be made - by General Motors or some other car company.   I say this because I have been writing Patents on this technology since the 1990's.   Google hasn't "invented" the self-driving car - they are just the next in a long line of players to get into the act.   Investing in such a technology that is diverse from their core competency is a risky bet.   Companies living high off the hog tend to do things like this - and end up getting hammered in the long run.

Google is trying to be too much all at once.   And their core competencies are suffering as a result.   The basic reason you went to Google in the first place - the search engine - is rapidly becoming their weakest link.

I wonder if perhaps in the future they will spin off these various divisions into separate companies.  Self-driving cars are fine and all, but they don't generate any synergy with Google or Droid, or Google Plus or whatever.   As a division, they are just a drag on Google finances.

Similarly, the Droid O/S could also go stand-alone.   And in fact, an anti-trust suit by the Justice department might force this down the road (although Google could point to Microsoft's ownership of BING as justification, I guess).

And Google has started doing weird things, like floating two mystery barges, which are likely little more than off-shore servers (which can operate with immunity outside the three-mile limit).   The tight security and weird secretiveness only adds to the aura of evil surrounding the company.   What's next?  An underground secret lair of evil?

Of course, the stock price continues to rocket - over $1000, after a recent earnings report.   Ad sales are way up, and that is one reason Google the search engine, is so annoying to use.   They shade the "ads" in the search results so subtly that it is hard to tell anymore whether you are clicking on a genuine search result, or a paid advertisement.   This is annoying to users, and many, such as myself, will turn away from sites saturated with ads.   The Internet is littered with the tombstones of companies that tried to commercialize their product too heavily.  MySpace is a good example.

Google is a good example of the so-called "banality of Evil".   Google may not have set out to be evil, but as it has grown, it has lost sight of its Silicon-Valley startup mantra.   "Don't be Evil" has morphed into "Don't be so naive!"

So I think I will have to switch Google from the "Good" to "Evil" category at this point.