On The Tragedy of Google

By June 21, 2011

In political science, there is a term, “imperial overstretch”, used to describe the overweening, overreaching behavior of large, “imperial” powers. Such behavior inevitably leads to the imperial power stumbling over itself. Whether this imperial power is The Roman Empire around 400 AD, Britain circa 1776, or (and this is controversial) America circa right about now, history shows us that when great powers overstep their boundaries, when they are overambitious, when they bite off more they can chew, they’re liable to choke, eventually. And they usually fall to some tiny startup nobody thought stood a chance: like Christianity, America, or the Taliban, respectively.

Companies can exhibit this same phenomenon. Larry Page and Sergey Brin changed the search game, and Google came to dominate the search business; Alexa says it is the most visited website on the Internet. Google was more than a curated “portal” to the Internet, it empowered users to access quality content on their (search) terms. And this worked out pretty well for Google, not so much for Yahoo, Excite, etc.

But starting in 2001, Google began to drift from its core product. It succumbed to a recursive cycle of feature creep. The Google empire began with a spate of acquisitions: Keyhole, Inc.’s technology eventually became Google Earth, Youtube was purchased for $1.65 billion in stock. They bought DoubleClick for about twice that, in April, 2007. They acquired the technology which would become Google Voice from GrandCentral for a cool $50 million that same year. The list goes on.

Google rapidly became a jumble of highly innovative companies. Perhaps the conversation went something like, “Hey, guys, monster of an idea: lets take all of this cash we’re making from our search business and buy a lot of cool little companies.” Blogger, Picasa, Orkut, and other companies folded into the Google family of products.

By the end of 2007, shares in Google traded on the Nasdaq for over $700 apiece. They, like the entirety of the economic system, declined precipitously in 2008, but Google’s comeback, sustained since 2009, belies a bigger problem: Google is a gargantuan company, yes, but its lost its edge. Google does so many things that, now, they have a hard time doing any of them well. Beyond search, Google’s most compelling products are, by and large, all acquisitions.

Why did Google lose its magic touch?

The company should be commended for attempting some in-house innovation. Gmail is pretty cool, right? Right. The company released several other original technologies, but the majority of them failed to gain popularity. I specifically look at Wave, the most tragic of all of Google’s recent products.

Google Wave failed for a number of reasons, but chief among them was that Wave couldn’t deliver on its promises.

Wave was promising. People got really excited about it. Wave just never delivered on the promises it made. Could it have changed the way people work and communicate? Sure. This correspondent believes that Wave was a revolutionary product, but concedes that its implementation was unfortunate. Google developed this wide open platform, but it failed to provide the one thing users today demand. In its effort to offer users an unbounded tool with seemingly limitless use cases, Google failed to give users guidelines and limits. There aren’t really good systems for how to use online collaboration tools. Presently, our brains don’t process parallel instantaneity well; watching five people type in real time is a headache. “The bottom line is Wave was ahead of its time. Aside from bleeding-edge techies, the bulk of today’s connected computer users aren’t ready to handle email, instant messaging and social networking in a real time platform,” said online magazine EWeek.

But the saddest part of the Google story is the decline of its search business. Google lost touch with its one really good technology while it was out there trying to take over the web. This correspondent, despite being a lifelong Apple fanboy all his life, and, thusly, despising all things Microsoft, became a Bing user.

I’m sorry, Google, but Bing is just better.

The fact of the matter is Google never had a magic touch to begin with. What they had was cash, lots and lots of cash. But the company can’t seem to deliver a decent product of its own. In a review of Google’s new ChromeBook notebooks for PC World, journalist Galen Gruman said it best: “Google plays with lots of technologies, and it has a culture of releasing incomplete software, then dropping it suddenly. Google throws half-baked technology against the wall, hoping it will cook itself as it travels in the air or as it sticks on the surface.” Don’t be surprised if Google stumbles.