Remember the Web 1.0 era? More to the point, remember the rise of Internet Explorer, and MSN, and how Microsoft bought everything from Hotmail to Claris Emailer en route to world domination? How everything was bundled, internally API’d and basically made into an inexorable juggernaut? Hell, we’re still paying for the integration of IE into the operating system – a trick pulled to sandbag Netscape in 1996 has been providing us with security nightmares for a decade. But I digress…
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that as soon as the Droid rolled out today, with the new Navigation package built free of charge into Android 2.0, the shares of Garmin and Tom Tom both plunged 20% almost immediately. All of a sudden, they’re stuck with a hardware premium, competing against a bundled product that’s free of charge. Sound familiar? Seriously, look at the list. Google Search (whether web, toolbar, desktop or whatever), GMail, Blogger, Google Maps, Google Chrome, GTalk, Google Reader, YouTube, iGoogle portal…and that’s just the stuff I use on a routine basis, not counting things like Google Earth, Google Wave (more on that in a minute), Google Docs, Google Voice, Picasa, Google Calendar…seriously, every time I do the list, I think of something else hanging out there that I hadn’t considered.
We had three rules in DC: we didn’t drink fruit-flavored liquor, we didn’t smoke machine-rolled cigars, and we didn’t put mission-critical work on Microsoft products. That was ten years ago. Now look at the list above, and think: if tomorrow morning all Google services vanished, completely, 1) how screwed would you be, and 2) what alternatives would you fall back on?
Put it like this: it is now very nearly possible to have a pure Google ecosystem. You can have a Google OS on your phone from two different carriers (and more on the way no doubt). Google can be your mail, calendar, contact number, voicemail, productivity suite, GPS system, web browser – pretty soon possibly even your OS, depending on how the Chrome OS for netbooks works out. And while you have to pay for your cellphone and its service, for now the rest of it is all free at the point of use. As far as you can see, it’s not costing you a thing.
That’s where the trouble starts. No matter how good a product Garmin or Tom Tom might make, how are they going to compete against a product that is a) good enough and b) visibly free? Microsoft ran up something like a 95% market share in web browsers that way, and still has a majority – the only thing that made a dent was the rise of Firefox, aided and abetted by Microsoft’s utter failure to innovate in the browser space and by the security nightmares engendered by the aforementioned browser integration. Or put another way: if Microsoft had taken viruses seriously and given half a thought to tabbed browsing and privacy mode in, say, 2000, Firefox would be a side project for neckbeard Linux hippies.
As I may have mentioned before, Google has your data. In a lot of ways, though, it also has your inertia. When’s the last time you used anything else for search, or for maps or directions? I was looking at my own usage, and in addition to Maps being right there in the iPhone’s home screen, it occurs to me that almost every single iPhone RSS app relies on Google Reader as its backbone service. I could ditch GMail and GTalk tomorrow, especially now that my employer runs its own in-house (encrypted!) IM service, I’ve got Safari and Firefox for browsers, I don’t really need a portal anymore but Yahoo could do that, I’ve already paid up for .Mac to cover mail and calendaring and some web service there…
I guess the point is: monoculture is dangerous. If you put all your eggs in the Google basket, then the first time it breaks – they get hacked, they decide to start charging an arm and a leg, they start strip-mining your personal info and selling to Russian pharmaceutical companies, it doesn’t matter, whatever – when the bough breaks, your cradle is going to get fucked right up. But for whatever reason, that hasn’t yet occurred to people. Maybe it was just slow – Google didn’t really displace Altavista as my go-to search until 2000 sometime, GMail dropped in 2004, the mass conversion to Reader only seems to have come along in the last 6 months, Blogger and YouTube were acquired at diverse times in the past. Maybe people buy into “Don’t Be Evil.” Maybe people just can’t resist free stuff. And maybe the cult of Google has just gotten to the point where they can roll out any old shit and people will break their neck for invitations, only to find themselves wondering “what the hell is this FOR” when they get there (I still don’t have one single real-world use case for Google Wave, and I’m a NERD).
But by whatever means, Google has quietly got a better grip on our collective nuts than Microsoft has – after all, they just have an OS. Google has your data – hell, Google has a non-trivial chunk of your life. And others could have that, too – but only Google has come right out and said they’re building their business on your data. And if I’m in the information business, in any fashion, I’m not going to sleep well for a long, long time. And even if I’m just a user, I’m starting to get a little uneasy about how tight the grip from Mountain View is.
Especially as I’m posting this via Google Wi-Fi.