Saturday, June 22, 2024

Are Google and Apple the New Bad Guys?

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“Think different.” “Don’t be evil.” Everyone recognizes the mottos of two of the most successful and influential companies in all of technology.

So why are Apple and Google now being eyed by some with such cynicism and suspicion?

Full disclosure: I’m one of the suspicious and cynical myself. There’s a lot I like about what both companies have to offer, but it’s hard for me to not feel troubled by the directions both of them have taken.

It’s easy to say that the life cycle of any large company will, over time, travel an arc from idealism to cynicism — either on the part of the company itself, or its supporters. This goes double for any company that tries to do something genuinely new and innovative.

The sheer size of an outfit, the raw scope of its ambitions, and the very nature of what they do make a path from Good Guy to Bad Guy seem all but inevitable. When you’re that successful, it’s all too easy to eventually become too smart, or powerful, or just plain too big for your own good.

It sounds like a handy explanation, doesn’t it? But the problem is, it explains little. For one, it’s too deterministic: it implies that anyone who shoots for the stars is going to land in the gutter at least once. It absolves Google and Apple — and anyone else who might be named in the same breath — of any real responsibility for what they do.

There are few entities that wield as much power as they do. Google and Apple are, to some degree, aware of that. But in my eyes they’re not veering toward “bad guy” status merely because they’re big. It’s also because they’re not compensating enough for their overweening power. For too long, both of them have not thoroughly examined the consequences of their actions. The results raise questions in various quarters, including among some of their biggest fans.

The Big Apple

As hard as it is to believe, there was a time (1997 or so) when Apple had become a veritable joke, a rudderless outfit that only shared a name with any previous glory it had. Its computers were overpriced and underpowered; its experiments in set-top box technology had come to naught.

Then Steve Jobs came back in and reinvented the company — not all at once, but in stages. The end result was that Apple went from being a computer company to a technology lifestyle company — and, as a convenient by-product of that, being master of (nearly) all media. Small wonder that investors were rightfully nervous about what might happen to the company if Jobs were to leave that much sooner. When your company’s identified that closely with its CEO, is there even a company as you know it without him?

Online TV and music in all its forms owes debts of both concept and execution to iTunes, the iTunes store, the iPod, and all the rest. Failures like the Pippin are long behind them. People line up to either buy their products or copy them in some form. Imitation, patent and trademark suits aside, imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery. What tablet or smartphone being produced now doesn’t have at least some iPhone or iPad in its blood?

Small wonder Apple started to feel that the world revolved around them. Their command of the desktop market was and continues to be a small portion of what’s owned by Microsoft, but Apple realized quickly they had clout that reached far beyond that space. People, even if they weren’t Mac users, wanted the iPod and the iPhone. And so Apple came to see themselves not as technologically unimpeachable, but culturally so.

Apple’s confidence in their position has translated into arrogance, and what’s worse is they’re not being disciplined in any significant way for it. Most of how this arrogance shows up is as policy — the often-arbitrary content rules regarding apps in the iTunes store, for instance, or the way Flash has long been portrayed as an absolute anathema on iOS for a whole bevy of not-terribly-convincing reasons.

The usual reason floated for this behavior is that Apple has a right to keep fine-grained control over their product as a way of guaranteeing the consistency of its quality. In the abstract, that’s not bad — but the way it manifests in specific actions comes off as a heavy-handed sop to the idea of consistency.

Instead of giving users the native option to run Flash, at their own risk, they block it entirely. Instead of creating a tiered app store with content for all ages and mature audiences, all allegedly controversial content is screened, often in arbitrary ways. They don’t seem to think anyone will really want to leave Apple behind because of this — because, well, they’re Apple.

In the short run, they may be right. Apple has always been able to fall back on being a lifestyle company, rather than an IT company, as an escape hatch. They’re confident — quite rightly so — that their stuff will show up in enterprises because users demand it, as opposed to them needing to sell themselves all the more aggressively in those spaces. They have a lucrative and comfortable niche, and they plan on defending it.

The problem is that the competition is getting organized. Consider Android: it may not be as consistent in its presentation and execution across product lines — a major complaint I have with it myself — but it’s growing in popularity, and maturing in ways that could convince iPhone owners they overpaid for a mere brand name. And while its application offerings are messier — recent talk of malware and GPL violations all come to mind — they’re also that much more open-ended, and that much less hidebound by what seem to amount to decisions of taste.

It’s not a question of Apple immediately losing tons of market share to ‘Droid, but also a question of the public image they project about their future directions. If their response to such competition is to just produce another iteration of the same hardware, and to not explore the possibility they’ve locked things down too heavily, they’re going to seem less like innovators in any respect.

The Googles: They Do Everything

Are there any pies left that Google doesn’t have a finger in? Search — and not just web search, but everything search — geolocation services, outsourced office IT, digital publication, smartphone technology, web browsers, thin-client tablets …

A decade ago, when Google was little more than the bright young face of Search 2.0, nobody would have associated any of these territories with Google. Even Google itself, I suspect, wouldn’t have believed it.

But as Google became the default search engine for most everyone who had an Internet connection, a funny thing happened. Google came to see itself as a gatekeeper for all that could possibly be searched, sorted, indexed, pictured, described or catalogued. Not just stuff on the web, but everything everywhere. This only became all the easier as our real and online lives started compulsively merging.

The main problem with being steward to so much information at once is that it may be too much for any one entity to handle, both logistically and morally.

For one, it leaves you with very few future directions to move in. It becomes that much harder to truly innovate when you already have so much under your thumb. Google’s compulsion to expand its reach manifests in the form of dozens of projects, many of which came to dead ends: Google Video (eclipsed by YouTube); Google Print Ads (an attempt to help out the newspaper industry, many agents of which blamed its decline on the likes of Google); Google Answers (their stab at replacing Wikipedia with professionally-vetted content, which lost out to Wikipedia and Yahoo!); Jaiku (the Twitter-alike service, now being run by a volunteer team); and so on.

The nadir of Google’s fetish for public experimentation was Google Wave, a sophisticated solution that matched no actual problem. People talked excitedly about how it might do everything from kill off e-mail to replace message boards. In the end, the only thing it killed was itself, with some of its features — like real-time collaboration — being folded into Google Docs.

I do give Google a lot of credit for experimenting freely, and being willing to let the public share in the conducting of some of those experiments. Some of these experiments were abortive for a good reason: future development on Google Gears, for instance, has been deprecated in favor of similar technologies found in the HTML 5 draft. Not everything a company does can be successful.

But too much of such visible thrashing around breeds a feeling that Google’s growing rudderless and confused –throwing their efforts into too many things that amount to also-ran versions of existing products and not innovating in substantive ways.

I don’t 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 Google’s real strengths lie elsewhere. And does anyone still really care about Chrome OS? I know I don’t; 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 world’s digital gatekeeper is it saddles you with an enormous degree of responsibility, the implications of which aren’t 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 it’s 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 people’s personal data — mainly, what folks search for on the web. Most people have no major problem with this, but Google shouldn’t take the blasé attitude of the public as license to be less than extremely diligent with their own internal enforcement. The concern isn’t just what they do with search results now, but what they do with user data in any future endeavor.

I’m not going to suggest that Google stop innovating. That’s like asking an athlete to breathe a little less deeply. I’m 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 what’s to be done?

The more I think about it, the more one of Google’s 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. Apple’s problem is that they’ve 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 they’re 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 Apple’s 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 they’ve 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 shouldn’t be between doing one thing well (and nothing else), or doing a hundred things badly. Apple could take a few cues from Google’s eager experimentation and loosen up a bit, allow that much more latitude of functionality without assuming it’ll 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.

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