Peak Google

In a post five months ago I claimed that Google hadn’t seen its peak yet. While I expect the company’s revenue to continue to climb, I’m now a lot more skeptical of its influence and credibility as an innovator.

First, of course, it’s worth pointing out that Google’s industry reputation has been completely off the charts for the past few years. Again and again I’ve heard them described as the most exciting and innovative company, working on absolutely the most advanced technology, with the most brilliant researchers and engineers in the world. Google lectures at Manchester and Oxford were standing-room-only affairs. If Google had announced that one of its secret research teams had found the cure for cancer or the key to cold fusion, most people wouldn’t have been surprised. No company can live up to those kinds of expectations.

Beyond the dominance in search and advertising, I’ve seen three major successes from Google. Mail and Maps are two, and while they’re both solid products (good technology, and a great fit with Google’s business model) I find it tough to get excited about them. They were the first big hits of the AJAX web application era, but the techniques didn’t originate with Google and there are now better copycat apps. Their third success, Chrome, is much more ambitious, both in terms of business model (a shrewd investment in the infrastructure needed to deliver their core products) and technology (a genuinely novel internal architecture for an existing class of application, and one much better suited to the “web application” paradigm Google endorses). Although Chrome’s market share among the general public barely registers, it’s already mature enough to compete with the major browsers, and I find that very impressive.

Unfortunately, a few nice web apps and a nifty repackaging of WebKit aren’t exactly the kind of world-changing innovation everyone was expecting. It wasn’t just Yahoo! and MSN who were frightened of Google in 2005; the thinking at the time was that Google was a threat in any market they chose to enter. Google’s more ambitious projects haven’t worked out so well.

They spent a couple of years talking big about municipal wifi. Lots of rhetoric and philosophy. Not a lot of actual wifi.

They got involved in the auction for the new wireless spectrum. And lost. I suspect Google was actually more interested in influencing the terms of the auction than in constructing the data network some analysts described. If so you can’t really call the auction a failure, but the incident didn’t do much for Google’s aura of invincibility.

Android has been Google’s biggest push into a new market. Frankly, I’m not sold on the business sense of this project: Android’s architecture doesn’t seem nearly web-centric enough to be of direct benefit to Google. While the effort can hardly be called a failure at this stage, Android is currently being overshadowed by both Apple’s iPhone and Palm’s Web OS. Android may well overtake Windows Mobile and Symbian at some point, but right now it doesn’t represent any real innovation in the mobile OS space.

Could Google Wave be the big success that everybody’s been waiting for? Despite all the hype the demo has received, I say no. A spiffy development framework isn’t the same as a killer product. Apple’s Cocoa framework is terrific, but it’s not in the same league with Mac OS X, the iPod, or the iPhone.

Google is a solid company and I think they’re covering their main focus well. In terms of innovation and ability to enter new markets, however, they’ve shown both arrogance (which seems the be the defining characteristic of Google’s culture) and weakness. Their mystique is fading.