Web

Cheer up, Larry! Why the Google CEO’s rousing I/O speech rang a little false

Larry Page at Google I/O 2013

Google kicked off its 2013 Google I/O developer conference with an epic-length keynote outlining new and forthcoming technologies – check out DT’s roundup of major announcements. However, perhaps the most intriguing moments came when Google CEO Larry Page unexpectedly concluded the keynote. Page has never been a strong presence at I/O, and his decision to take the mic was doubly surprising in the wake of revealing a rare voice condition. The appearance became more remarkable when Page opened up the floor to a brief Q&A session. Page described the move as “kind of unconventional,” and he’s right: it’s Just Not Done at large events, and companies of Google’s stature cringe at the thought of their CEOs on stage alone, exposed, and unscripted.

And then, Larry Page revealed he’s sad. Sad that development of the Web is “still moving slow” due to negativity, sad at the lack of collaboration between organizations, and sad at competitors’ being focused on making money and on “zero-sum games.”

“We’ve been really excited by the Web – obviously, being birthed from it as a company. We’ve really invested a lot in the open standards behind all that,” Page said, responding to a question from Mozilla’s Daniel Buchner. “I’m sad that the Web’s probably not advancing as fast as it should be.”

Google I/O is the only major event Google holds each year, with nearly 6,000 Google faithful snatching up seats and showing off a certain gung-ho spirit. Page’s paeans that the technology industry ought to focus on making new and important things “that make people’s lives better” drew applause and cheers. By golly, if only those other people would stop with that negativity and backwards thinking, we could work together and have a world of self-driving cars, smartphones that monitor air quality, and eyeglasses that can capture video! And tons more besides!

On some levels Page is absolutely right. Google has made major investments in open standards and letting other people freely build services and platforms on its technologies. But Google can be just as negative as its competitors … and, so far, its track record for great things that haven’t been invented yet is less impressive than you might think.

Walking the Walk

New Google Maps

Google has a strong record of letting other people use its technology to their own ends. The 800-pound gorilla is Google Search, the default for most browsers, smartphones, and tablets on the planet — and the engine behind innumerable apps and services. Two more huge examples are YouTube and Google Maps. They’re both platforms Google wants consumers and businesses to embrace and build upon – what Page might call a “non-zero-sum” situation, where both Google and its partners benefit.

Google also invests in open technologies. Two prime examples are Android and Chrome, based on Linux and the WebKit engine. Android is an undeniable success: IDC says Android accounts for over 70 percent of the world smartphone market and Google just announced more than 900 million Android devices have been activated. Chrome may be the Web’s most popular browser: Google claims more than 750 million people use it monthly. Google has also played a major role in creating HTML5 technologies anyone can use. These projects are “collaborative.” Google tapped in to open technology, built upon it, and then contributed back to the original.

However, Google’s enthusiasm to “collaborate” has also gotten it in some hot water. No one pays Google for Android, but device makers using the OS almost certainly pay Microsoft, which has been making an increasingly solid case that Google’s efforts to interoperate with their technologies amounts to patent infringement.

“We certainly struggle with people like Microsoft,” Page noted.

Similarly, Google has had a “difficult relationship” with Oracle over reverse-engineered Java technology in Android. Google basically won that case (perhaps a bigger blow to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s ego than to Oracle’s bottom line), but the feud still simmers and Oracle is moving to cut Android out of current Java technology. Page doesn’t seem worried: “Android is very important to the Java ecosystem, and so we’ll get through that just fine,” Page said during his Q&A session. “Just not in an ideal way.”

These battles are part of what Page means when he bemoans a lack of collaboration between major players in the technology industry. And he likes to cast Google as a victim. For instance:

“We’ve had an offer forever that we’ll interoperate on instant messaging. I think just this week Microsoft took advantage of that by interoperating with us but not doing the reverse,” Page noted, referring to Microsoft’s Outlook.com supporting Google Talk but not allowing Google Talk to tap into (say) Facebook and Skype chatting. “That’s not the way to make progress. You need to actually have interoperation, not just people milking off one company for their own benefit.”

So big bad Microsoft is taking advantage of poor Google – no wonder Page is sad. Viewed from Microsoft’s perspective, however, perhaps Google has been the one milking off it for years.

Talking the Talk

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“Every story I read about Google is kind of us versus some other company, or some stupid thing, and I just don’t find that very interesting,” Page said during his concluding remarks. “We should be building great things that don’t exist. Being negative is not how we make progress. Most important things are not zero-sum, there’s a lot of opportunity out there.”

But Google feels free to go negative with collaborators building “great things” Google doesn’t like. Remember the CloudMobile A800, the Chinese smartphone from Acer that could run Android apps? Neither does anyone else: Google threatened to kick Acer out of the Android sandbox and made it kill the product. Have you ever been frustrated by invasive ads on your Android device? Guess what? No ad blockers for you! Google has removed them from the Google Play store claiming they amount to unauthorized interference, prohibited by Android’s developer agreement. Ironic, considering how many people consider ads unauthorized interference. (Ad blockers are still available out-of-band from developers and other Android stores.) What does Google do when it thinks someone is milking off its efforts for their own benefit? It tries to shut them down. Just this week Google demanded Microsoft withdraw its YouTube app for Windows Phone 8 because it doesn’t carry ads.

Page’s praise of collaboration comes just a few weeks after Google decided to fork WebKit, the open-source rendering engine underneath desktop and mobile versions of Chrome and Safari, Opera (soon), and Android’s default browser. WebKit is one of the most successful (and, admittedly, most complex) open standards projects out there – but Google’s done collaborating. Instead, Google Chrome will be based on its own blink rendering engine.

What great original ideas has Google given birth to? The verdict is still out for things like self-driving cars and Google Glass, but the rest of the record is a bit sparse. Google’s major businesses all existed before Google came along: Google has just been very successful with some of them. Google was not the first Internet search engine: that was probably WebCrawler, then AltaVista. Google was not the first to Web-based mapping (that was MapQuest) and Google was not the first to smartphones – part of why Steve Jobs considered Android a “stolen product.” Was Google Play (er, Android Market) the first mobile app store? Nope: iTunes. Similarly, Google was late to social networking (Google+ is its third major effort: remember Orkut and Buzz?), and we’ve certainly seen one or two few things like Google’s All Access subscription music offering before. And Google’s largest business – Internet advertising – predates Google by 10 years.

Turn the Page

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Is Page lying when he says he wishes there was more collaboration amongst major Internet players, or faking dismay at the pace of the Web’s advancement? No: I think Page sincerely wishes Web technology and open standard development were evolving faster, and truly believes Google does everything it can to support those efforts. Moreover, I believe Page exhibited considerable courage to admit he has been saddened at how some situations have played out. Most CEOs would go with a positive spin or bravado. Page instead showed his humanity by being honest.

But when Page says he “wouldn’t grade the industry very well in terms of where we’ve gotten to,” the key word is “we.” Google can’t exactly cast the first stone.

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