How evil became optional at Google

Posted by Rob Enderle

I’ve been reviewing the Google timeline in an attempt to determine if the accusations about the search engine giant stealing Android from Apple hold up.  

I think they do, but I believe the timeline illustrates another major problem: Google has largely lost its way.  

How evil became optional at Google The corporation that was to "organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible" has, as Donna Bogatin pointed out in December of 2006, gone wildly off track.

I think the cause, as Bogatin implies, was Eric Schmidt. Still, veering away from an initial strategy isn't an uncommon problem, yet it is one every firm should likely protect against.

In Google’s case, the abrupt change of course has resulted in near stalled growth and being villainized by the best regarded CEO in the world post-mortem. I can recall similar occurrences killing Netscape, and most recently, causing serious problems at Cisco.

Let’s explore what happened.

Another Look at Google’s History

Google started off just like many great tech companies (HP &Apple) did: in a Silicon Valley Garage (I’ll be working from this history) and was officially incorporated in September 1998. Interestingly enough, the founders initially got it wrong and were adamantly against advertising funding. Had that not changed, there clearly wouldn’t be a Google today.  

In 2004, Google adopted a now-famous "Code of Conduct" in the context of its long-awaited IPO: "don’t be evil." Essentially, this meant forgoing short term goals for a better world result. You may recall that evil was defined as the violation of, or intent to violate, a moral code.

Moral is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad. And Google's code of conduct stipulated that the company would refrain from doing bad things. Then again, the Google IPO made many of the employees very wealthy, which is likely both the source and root of the company's current problems. Indeed, I think this is where Google's code of conduct met one of the most accurate sayings - "the love of money is the root of all evil" - and lost.

The first public inkling that something had gone wrong was made evident in 2005 when Google blacklisted CNET for pointing out Mountain View's hypocritical position on privacy. Google was effectively mining the information on its users but apparently protecting that same information on its CEO. This was rather prophetic, given the company's recent Consent Decree with the FTC which implies the FTC concluded that Google was in violation of its own code.

But it was probably around 2005 that Google started to ignore its own Code of Conduct. Other examples include the agreement with Sun to help market Open Office followed by the acquisition of Upstartle in 2006 which resulted in Google Apps competing with Open Office.   

However, the most memorable code of conduct breach was Google's attack on the iPhone,  a device  they clearly intended to destroy. Now this is something I find particularly troubling, given just how much help Steve Jobs had given Google - including putting its CEO on Apple’s board. 

Most recently, their high profile deal with the city of Los Angeles appears to have been misrepresented and Google is being asked to support Novell GroupWise at the cost of "several million dollars" - clearly showcasing that, at the very least, they put IT buyers at risk. Finally, we know that Google’s lack of vendor support for Google TV put Logitech at critical risk, prompting the company to literally run for the hills from the latest iteration of this product even though it appears to be much improved.

As I wrote this article, users were having a bit of a fit over Google’s penetration of their computers to report their location by mining information of Android phones in the vicinity. Essentially, Android phones are now Google spies and secretly reporting back not only the phone’s location, but the location of other devices they scan. Oh, and yes, instructions on how to opt out of this clear privacy invasion are here. Of course, it is also worth noting that Google is the only tech company I know of that has actually been chased out of town by guys in scuba gear and carrying pitchforks

Much of this seemed to start (including the move to betray Apple with Android) within mere months of Google going public. This suggests that a singular event transformed Mountain View from a company that wanted to do good to a mega-corporation where good was simply optional.

Impact

Let’s go back to Google's initial goal of organizing the world’s information. As we review the company's efforts, it seems as if the train started coming off the track when Google began competing with creation companies like Apple, Sun, and Microsoft.  

No, they never particularly liked Microsoft, but were partnered with Sun, while their CEO joined Apple’s board in 2006, and Steve Jobs help mentor the Google founders. As partners with these firms (and yes, I would include Microsoft), there was a good chance Google could more easily catalogue information created by their tools. But  as a competitor? Well, they would have to displace the tools and effectively own the world’s content.    

I think this paradigm is the core of the problem, meaning, somehow Google concluded that it needed to own information or, at least, circumvent the ownership of others in order to catalogue it.  

In short, it appears as if Google’s current path, where evil is optional, is actually taking them farther from their goal. Unless the company can take ownership of this information, and it is doubtful that will happen before a variety of governments step in as the FTC has done, their current path appears untenable.  As such, Google's move away from its code of conduct has actually reduced its chances of success.

Wrapping Up: Lessons Learned

Going public can be one hell of a life changing experience. Clearly, the sudden personal wealth coupled with the need to keep a massive number of investors happy can, as Google has demonstrated, warp your perspective. Mountain View appeared to go into a bit of a panic and then lost its ability to tell what was right. Once headed down that path, Google seemed to lose sight of its core goal to organize the world’s information and doing evil became optional.     

We can see the adverse impact of excessive wealth all around us from politicians and financial managers who appear corrupt. It all tends to end badly, suggesting that staying focused on the core reason a company went into business should be retained even after it has proven successful.

That was at least partially what Steve Jobs appeared to say in his final meeting to Larry Page, and it is obviously something a lot more folks out there should take to heart. In the end, I agree with Page, the top threat to Google is Google. Isn't it amazing how often that is the case?