I dont expect much of a noise from their forthcoming foray into social networking. Facebook and Twitter already has that sewn up thanks to brand recognition, so any attempts to displace them will just be another reminder that Googles real strengths lie elsewhere. And does anyone still really care about Chrome OS? I know I dont; Google ate its own lunch here with the release of Android-powered tablets. (The Chrome browser, by itself, is an excellent product, one of the best things from their labs.)
The second problem with being the worlds digital gatekeeper is it saddles you with an enormous degree of responsibility, the implications of which arent always obvious at first. The lawsuits over things like Google Street View, or the legal furors over Google Books, or the messy patent fight between Oracle and Google over the use of Java in Android --they all point towards Google having a long-standing attitude of ask forgiveness rather than get permission.
What will they do next without telling anyone until after its already well under way, with possible privacy or security implications?
Most central to this is how Google is in the sticky position of generating the vast majority of their revenue from mining of peoples personal data -- mainly, what folks search for on the web. Most people have no major problem with this, but Google shouldnt take the blasé attitude of the public as license to be less than extremely diligent with their own internal enforcement. The concern isnt just what they do with search results now, but what they do with user data in any future endeavor.
Im not going to suggest that Google stop innovating. Thats like asking an athlete to breathe a little less deeply. Im quite conscious of how tough it is to be aware of the stability, privacy and security implications of any project.
I do suggest that Google find a way to weave that much more caution and introspection into the way they innovate -- to really be that much less evil, and make that show in the features they offer and the choices they make.
The Big Fix
So whats to be done?
The more I think about it, the more one of Googles biggest problems is that they are trying to be all things to all people, to the detriment of their core mission: help people find useful stuff, and not be jerks if they can help it. Apples problem is that theyve been trying to be exactly Apple, to the detriment of anything else they could be -- including a better, more flexible, more open-ended Apple.
The first company suffers from such compulsive over-invention that theyre becoming defocused. The second had a great wave of reinvention before, but have since stagnated in a whole new way.
The only things that will change both companies, I think, are consistent pressures from the outside that count. Ironically enough, one of Apples newest and most direct competitors is Google -- via Android, which for all of its shortcomings is still a powerful challenger to iOS. Apple needs to be realistic about how long it can continue offering variations on the same basic themes, all predicated on the assumption that people will always choose to pay that much more for their hardware and software.
Google, in turn, needs to question just how far it can spread itself -- whether or not all these sprawling skunkworks theyve spawned only dilute their brand further, and build in that many more excuses to only be cautious after the fact.
The ideal choice for either company shouldnt be between doing one thing well (and nothing else), or doing a hundred things badly. Apple could take a few cues from Googles eager experimentation and loosen up a bit, allow that much more latitude of functionality without assuming itll automatically kill the experience they offer. Google could streamline its operations so that they can do proper and thoughtful justice to the best ideas they do come up with.
Then maybe they could both think different without being evil.