February 03, 2011

Every company”€”no matter how trendy or cool, no matter how many Goth girls on rollerskates they employ, no matter how many simpering genius autistics in silver pants they have on the payroll”€”every company eventually reaches the point where it becomes a cubicle Jonestown devoid of anything resembling real-world logic. I refer to this as corporate development’s “Fat Elvis” stage. Google is a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich away from sequined Vegas Elvis.

In the old days, Google’s home page was a paragon of good design: spare, minimalist, and utilitarian. This was in contrast to their main competitor Yahoo!‘s preposterous complexity. I eventually switched my homepage from Yahoo! to Google simply because Google hurt my eyes less. These days, I’m not so sure. When I type things into it, Google’s search page tries to finish my thoughts for me. I’m sorry, Google; despite all the drinking, I’m still smarter than you are. Then when I get my search results, Google annoyingly tries to open little mini-windows as my mouse pointer moves past the links. These “features” serve no real purpose other than to annoy us with how clever Google is at caching data. Creeping featurism has come to Google.

This sort of feature bloat is a phenomenon of all badly designed software projects. Creeping featurism is a sociological defect which has software consequences. Inside most software companies are people called “product managers” who get paid to, well, develop the product (and yes, Web pages can be products). This is an important role when the product is being fleshed out, and it’s important to have someone to blame when the product stops working. When a product is done, the product manager’s role is to make sure it works properly. Unfortunately, product managers like to add features, as they don’t get promotions and raises if they don’t. Therefore, we see useless “fat Elvis” nonsense such as Google’s instant previews and autocomplete.

Then there are former CEO Eric Schmidt’s numerous gaffes. Was he autistic? Was he power-mad? Or was he so used to fawning adoration that he felt like he could say anything he wanted to without consequences? I guess nobody really cares now that he is off cackling to himself and counting his billions, but for the CEO of a company whose motto is “Don’t be evil,”€ he did a good corporate-villain act. Maybe Schmidt’s Dr. Evil impersonation makes sense in “Fat Elvis” land, but it doesn’t make much sense out here. Perhaps he got into some kind of nerdy chest-beating contest with Bill Gates to see who could be scarier. I declare Schmidt the wiener. While newly christened Google CEO Larry Page may surprise everyone by being a real smoothie, I fail to see how he’s going to be any better. After all, what kind of people skills did it take to select a scary dork such as Schmidt in the first place?

“Destroying other companies or absorbing them into the collective is supposed to be seen as some kind of social good”€”or even something good for the shareholders.”

Google has a simple approach to business development. If there is an online business somewhere which looks promising, interesting, or nifty, Google will either buy it outright or create a lousy knockoff product, often effectively destroying the competition. What’s weird is that Google doesn’t make any money from these “other businesses””€”12 years after their incorporation and six years after their IPO, they still make all their money from selling ads associated with search terms. Sure, they have email, Google Docs, Google Shopping, Blogger, their own programming language, YouTube, mapping software, a coming ripoff of pandora.com’s music service, a photo-sharing service, Orwellian Panopticon and medical-data services, a browser, an ersatz PayPal which nobody uses, a clone of Yahoo!‘s financial service, a cell-phone OS, Orkut (their version of Friendster/Facebook), and lately a Groupon ripoff, but they can’t figure out how to make money from any of these products. They only make money selling ads, same as they always did. Sure, Google has to grow, and it’s hard for them to grow much more in selling ads: They already own a substantial share of the world’s advertising market. For the last 12 years, they have certainly taken over some new markets, but they have failed to monetize any of them.

Imagine if I was CEO of an unregulated electric utility. I make a lot of money selling electricity to my captive audience. So I use my money to buy DVD-player companies, electric-oven companies, and electric-car companies, all ostensibly to drive up demand for my electricity. In the process I ruin the industries who can’t compete with my monopoly, which is giving these things away at below-market costs. Would this be good for human progress? This is what Google wants you and their shareholders to believe. Destroying other companies or absorbing them into the collective is supposed to be seen as some kind of social good”€”or even something good for the shareholders. If there were any kind of shareholder activism in a company such as Google, this kind of goofing off would not be allowed. But of course, Google’s shareholders are a bunch of hysterical fanboys who don’t understand what “badly managed company” means. If they noticed, they’d have a greater percentage of Google’s head count working on the core business (aka, Search) and they’d have less of the kitchen-sink approach that did Yahoo! so much good.


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