Friday, June 17, 2011

Google's Civil War

I've been having a conversation (some would say "spirited debate" or "argument") over Google with a friend online. He's a big fan of Google's suite of hardware - Android, ChromeOS laptops, etc. - and sees great things in their future. I appreciate Google for its work in Search, it's free GMail, it's excellent Google Voice transcription service (yes, it also redirects calls, but all I use it for is voice mail transcription), and the fact that Android is keeping Apple honest on iOS. But more and more, it is becoming clear that Google is in trouble. There's a simple fact that almost everyone is ignoring.

Google is at war with itself.

Google began as a creature of the Web. Search was it's be-all, end-all, and contextual ads paid the bills. (The last part is still true today.) The vision of Google was that ultimately the Network would make Mac vs PC distinctions obsolete. Ultimately, their leadership preached, everything will be done online. (Today we'd say "In the Cloud.") Their new ChromeOS is the ultimate expression of that vision - a computer which exists ONLY to be a gateway to applications that are online. Take a ChromeOS device off the web... and it is little more than a large paperweight. Samsung and others are trying to build a whole platform for Netbooks around this OS, which of course primarily runs Google Apps.

But at the same time, Google introduced Android as a way to ensure that the Mobile future included Google, and left no room for an upstart competitor (like Apple's iOS) to lock them out. They followed the Windows model of "license to everyone and anyone" as a way toward massive growth, and Android now runs on more SmartPhones than Apple or any flavor of Windows Mobile. But this has required repeated compromises to keep phone makers happy and to keep wooing iPhone addicts, and now Android is increasingly becoming App-centric with data living locally on the device. The Google of Android is not a company "of the Network" but a company of the cellular carrier, the hardware vendor, and the software maker.

These two parallel courses are fundamentally incompatible. Ultimately, the computer will have to either move "to the network" or remain in our hands. By pursuing two incompatible courses here, Google is not hedging their bets, but rather showing a split within the company and its philosophy. This split now has Google Android devices competing directly with Google ChromeOS devices for the same customers. And that is unlikely to end well for either of them, especially in light of the Apple juggernaut which has a simple message and a clear alternative.

Here's hoping Google figures this out soon, and drops one path. Or at worst, decided to merge ChromeOS and Android, so there is one code base for customers to worry about. Otherwise, the Google of the future will be the Microsoft of today - out of ideas, out of gas, and praying to hold on for just a little bit longer so the execs can cash out.

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