February 8th, 2006

How Powerful Does Google Want to Be?


In the firestorm over my article that looked at Google through an Orwellian lens, I heard many apologists argue that Google is not really that powerful because there are plenty of competitors, and because users have the option to switch. This from Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineWatch:

Yep, a huge amount of traffic flows through Google. A huge amount also does NOT. Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves are all independent search voices that have a lot of usage. Google is merely one search “newspaper” among them — a big one, but not the only one.

The ink was still drying on these “Google is not so powerful” comments when the news broke that Google is negotiating a Microsoft-like deal with Dell to be pre-installed on Dell PCs:

Bob Kaufman, a spokesman for Dell, the world’s leading personal computer maker, said his company is evaluating Google Inc. software that PC customers could use to search both the public Web and for local information stored on their PCs.

“We can confirm that we are running a test with Google that could include a Google-powered Dell home page, Google desktop search and a Google Toolbar,” Kaufman told Reuters.

“We are conducting a test of distribution of some of our software via Dell,” Google spokesman Jon Murchinson said.

Dell and Google spokesmen were responding to a report in the Wall Street Journal that described the inroads Google appears to be making with personal computer makers including Dell and No. 2 vendor Hewlett-Packard Co..

The report, citing unnamed sources, said Dell and Google are in exclusive talks to install Google software on as many as 100 million new Dell PCs following a bidding process in which Google edged out Microsoft and after Yahoo Inc. withdrew.

(Here’s the original Wall Street Journal article, if you subscribe.)

So don’t worry about Google — they’re just another competitor. Like Microsoft was just another competitor in the 1990s.

The difference between Google dominance and Microsoft dominance is that with Google’s ASP model, they only need the pre-install tactic to hook users — then, even if users switch PCs, they will likely retain their attachment to Google services.

We also just learned about Google’s chat feature, yet one more example of their ambition to be the provider of choice for anything and everything.

I always come back to Google’s mission statement:

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

How far is the leap from “organize” to “control”? I’m sure the Google apologists will be quick to explain the difference.

My point about Orwell is that history has shown how difficult it is for institutions that acquire great power to live by the motto “Don’t be evil.” If you want to believe that Google is “different,” and that history doesn’t repeat itself, well then more power to you.

Comments (7 Responses so far)

  1. Not to Link Craigslist Gets Into Some Trouble CNN, Losing on the Air, Winning Online Offensive Real estate agents are next How Powerful Does Google Want to Be? Breaking up is easy to do The comment sphere Here’s journalistic principle The problem with English is…. The Patent Trolls,

  2. more aggressive about protecting the integrity of its search results and I think that concern is uppermost in bloggers’ minds when they write about abuses of power at Google . I think some of their concerns will turn into reality, but only so far as search engines need to deal with the

  3. Scott, you said, “The difference between Google dominance and Microsoft dominance is that with Google’s ASP model, they only need the pre-install tactic to hook users — then, even if users switch PCs, they will likely retain their attachment to Google services.”

    But the same is true of Microsoft services bundled into Windows. If users switch PCs but stick with Windows (which, much to Apple’s chagrin, happens far more often than not), they will also likely retain their attachment to MS bundled apps. That would change only if they went to, say, Mac OS X or Linux when they changed hardware.

    Google’s ASP-delivered services do have the advantage of being mostly platform agnostic, so any increases in user loyalty derived from bundling would carry over no matter what platform a user switched from or to.

    Regardless, your main point is still valid: bundling on the desktop is a category-killer tactic!

  4. Jay, what you say about MS is true — for now. We’re already seeing with Dell the loosening of MS’s strangehold. There may come a time soon when switching Windows PCs doesn’t necessarily mean you siwtch to a PC with MS apps pre-installed. And MS Live suggests the war will be fought on an ASP battlefield where Google has the lead.

  5. I know Andy Grove claimed only the paranoid survive, but this is taking it way too far.

    Google is just another corporation with a slogan it cannot ever live up to. Larry and Sergey don’t own the company; other people do. That is the nature of a public company and they are learning the hard way that stock markets can tolerate quite a lot of evil before they turn on you (ie anything less than Enron-style fraud).

    But that does not mean Google is planning total global domination, even if the ‘control’ gameplan was even achievable. It’s a search engine funded by advertising, for goodness sake. Google management know the position as number one search engine and the traffic that entails is fragile. Why do you think they are negotiating with Dell, assuming that this deal goes further than what they already have. What are they going to install? GooglePack? Half of it isn’t Google’s own software.

    Even if Google sees off the MSN, Yahoo and AskJeeves engines, that is not game over for the competition. The history of IT has seen successive companies achieve temporary dominance of large chunks of the market, but rarely enough to do more than tick a lot of people off with sudden price rises and anti-competitive behaviour. An alternative rises up and gives the incumbent a good kicking, which then lives out its sunset years doing anything it can turn a profit at. I suspect Google will not be toppled by the other big search combines of today but a different technology. Maybe it will be something like the P2P search of Yacy that is now appearing in referral logs.

    Personally, I’d fear a benign Google that no-one wanted to compete with, lulling us into a false sense of security and dependence. But that ain’t going to happen. Not with today’s shareholders keen for ridiculous valuations.

    Google apologist? Yeah, whatever.

  6. Scott, if you want to discuss Google’s power in general, more power to you.

    If you go off ranting about Orwell-1984-Animal-Farm-Gitmo-judge-jury-executioner-THEY’RE COMING TO GET US!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! … because Google slapped a search-spammer, well … I guess this is why you don’t have a hard time getting attention and links 1/2 :-).

  7. [I should clarify that the buzzword-soup was my parody of the sensibility, not all of them appear in your article.]

  8. There’s nothing wrong with having bundled software with new computer systems. Speaking as someone that’s done a fair amount of tech support, the closer it comes to “it just works out of the box”, the better it is for the end user. Simply, most don’t know enough to actually find and install the software they need if it doesn’t (nor do they know enough to switch – which is why bundled software is so attractive to software vendors).

    Google is a powerful player in the tech industry, to be sure. The difference between Google and Microsoft though is that it hasn’t yet done anything that could be described as anti-competitive, a la how Microsoft killed Netscape. Google, to my knowledge, isn’t strong-arming Dell into keeping Yahoo products from being bundled as well. They’re not holding anything over Dell’s head should Dell not agree exactly to Google’s terms. Microsoft, on the other hand, essentially threatened to jack up the price for Windows OEM’s for any manufacturer that dared to bundle netscape. That’s what got the justice department after them, and therein lies the difference.

    Google also hasn’t yet tried to lock users into their services, by say, making their browser, media player, and IM application damn near impossible to uninstall, and being generally hostile towards interoperability and open formats.

    And FWIW, you can also be damn sure that Windows Vista will come with some version of live.com as the start page and MS desktop search will be built into the OS. Depending on how arrogant MS gets they might even try to leverage IE 7 to “break” Google services and use “secret” API’s for their own stuff.

    Google also has some pretty stiff competition from both Yahoo and Microsoft (and Amazon, and Ebay, and a whole bunch of others) which generally means they don’t have a monopoly to leverage even if they were so inclined. Sure, the barriers to entry for the search business are pretty high (Google has like 100k servers and probably the most powerful computing infrastructure on the planet), but on the other hand, search is far from a solved problem, and while Google has the best right now I wouldn’t even call it good by any objective analysis. So I’m don’t really believe that Google is either a monopoly right now or that they can’t be beat in the future.

    It’s possible to imagine a day when Google *is* the web and can exercise totalitarian control over it, but it’s also equally possible to imagine that they’ll have AOL’s status in 10 years time. I don’t think that the Orwellian prophecy is written in stone, at least not yet.

  9. Chris, “total global domination” — your words, not mine — had I used those words I’m sure I would agree with your characterization of “paranoid.” You may well be right the Google will be displaced by a new techology — I’m observing the trend, NOT jumping to conclusions about where it will end (although it makes it much easier for people to rant when they charicature the argument that way.)

    Speaking of which, Seth, I think “paradoy” is the operative word in your comment — it takes so much less intellect to make fun than it does to engage and discuss, doesn’t it?

    Eric, thank you for the substantive response. You’re right that Google hasn’t taken any of Microsoft’s hostile and anti-competitive practices, but that may not be the only effective path. And you’re right that it’s very possible to imagine Google as a has been — -again, it not a “propechy,” just some qualitative observations on a trend.

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