Google has no secret plan

Here’s an article that provides, finally, an analysis of Google that is thankfully devoid of any of the hundreds of conspiracy theories that abound over the Internet about Google’s plan to take over the world.

The writer takes apart conspiracies one-by-one and provides more sane justifications for Google’s actions.

The article is disappointing in one funny way – you tend to agree with most of the writer’s arguments, but that means that Google isn’t, after all, some out-of-this-world, astonishing company with a top-secret master plan that it’s going to unleash upon the world. By taking away the suspense, the romanticism and the mystery surrounding Google, we’re left with nothing more than a tech company with a firm focus on its area of expertise, that’s just doing far more things right than wrong. That’s all there is to it. The writer’s attempts to rationalise, though, are bang on.

Hey look. Someone else is predicting that Google will user their super-mega-ultimate-supreme server farm to replace your PC’s operating system.

That sounds familiar.

I do not buy it. Let’s look at some of the arguments:

“Google has hired OS experts like Rob Pike and Marc Lucovsky! Clearly they are toiling away on the Manhattan project of OS research, which will culminate in some kind of…SOMETHING! Some kind of something which will sweep Microsoft from the face of the earth!”

A more likely scenario is that Google does indeed perform OS research, but not for you and I. For themselves. Their clusters use a custom filesystem. They run linux, but it’s been modified from the original Red Hat. They need (and can attract) smart folks to build and extend these systems. But it’s all for the benefit of storage and search. They didn’t hire Rob and Marc to work on giving you online spreadsheets. Sorry.

“Google uses wowie-zowie javascript for Gmail and Google maps! Clearly this is the harbinger of their browser-based OS-like-thingy!”

I think they use javascript because it works well. It’s one step beyond html. Like any other technology-driven company, they’ll use the best tools they can, even if those tools aren’t mainstream yet. I’ve looked at the source code for both Gmail and Google maps, and I believe they are two entirely different projects, run by two separate groups. The goal of one is to make a good web-based email service. The goal of the other is to make a good online map service. I find it difficult to fit those pieces together into a master strategy. I think they evolved independently.

“Google has invested in native clients like Picasa and Keyhole maps and Desktop Search! Clearly this is an aggressive move into the consumer application space!”

Well, that’s partly true. But Google isn’t primarily interested in selling consumer apps. I think Picasa and Keyhole were acquired because Google wants to own delivery channels (browsers) for data that doesn’t currently have a good delivery channel. Html data is delivered by a web browser, and it’s probably a bit late for Google to own that. But Geographic data (the real thing, not road maps) has no browser, except either a full-blown GIS system or a lightweight client like keyhole. Photos on your hard drive have no browser (unless you have a mac).

I think Google desktop search was kind of a fluke. Something they could do fairly easily (right?) with some market opportunity (because windows default search BLOOOOOOOOOOWS). A low-investment play that incidentally forced MS and Yahoo to play catch-up.

Let’s talk about business strategy. It’s fun to imagine that Google has some awesome master plan for controlling all computerdom. But I have a simpler theory that I think fits the evidence:

A) Google cares first and foremost about web search. Most of their architect-level employees will be working on making search better. I think one of Google’s big shots said something similar right out loud. Search is what they do.

B) Google cares secondly about new kinds of search. Book search. Place search. Image search. Discussion group search. Product search. Email search. Because they have an advertising model that can be targeted to most any type of search. (Google also cares about new kinds of search because web ads may not work forever.)

C) Google cares thirdly about interesting new things. These come from employees. Depending on which source you believe, Google employees spend either 10% or 20% of their time working on personal projects. (Update: It looks like 20% is the correct number) The really successful projects get publicized via Google labs. Google maps started as one of these. I bet Gmail did too.

I’m especially interested in (C). 20% is a lot of time. Would your company willingly slash 20% from its developer-hours? Why is this important?

For one thing, it’s the world’s best marketing department. Those Google labs projects don’t generate much revenue, but they draw mindshare like crazy. How often does your company announce something genuinely new and interesting? Because of the constant bubble of percolating personal projects, Google enjoys near-constant online buzz.

Would your company sacrifice that 20% development time if it meant they could fire the entire marketing department, spend $0 on web advertising, and still boost their media coverage?

That 20% is also key for attracting talent. Working at Google has a lot of perks (so I hear), but for a developer, the ability to work on personal projects is magic. To my knowledge, no other company offers this. (Update: My knowledge is sadly limited – see comments)

Finally, those outside projects (call them lab projects, personal projects, forever-in-beta projects, whatever) are a powerful competitive weapon. Microsoft probably understands that the real competition with Google is (A) and (B). But I bet they’re focusing way too much thought on the projects from (C). From a competition point of view, (C) is a feint. (or maybe it isn’t! ha ha!)

Put another way, it’s fire and motion. For instance, Microsoft is working on a new version of IE. MS will need to test their browser against Gmail and Google maps — arguably the most complex websites in existence — and God help them if their new browser breaks those sites. For anyone who has spent hours testing code against IE, this is delicious irony, sweet and savory.

So that’s my theory: There is no secret replace-windows master plan. Google is just a smart company with a solid business strategy, an understanding of their core competency, good talent and a few tricks (simple tricks!) for leveraging such talent.

But this theory could be wrong. If Google creates some kind of OS of the gods, I’ll happily admit my error :)