I was reading an article today on a World without Google on the TECHi site. The author’s main arguments is that, without Google, things would have been very different for Yahoo!, Microsoft and Apple, and the Internet in general. I have some issues with their assertions.
First: Yahoo! I’m not sure why the author included it, since they didn’t posit a different world for search without Google. Yahoo! was the search leader initially, and their search was quite good initially (since their first search databases were built by hand, with people deciding the classifications rather than trying to automate it, the results seemed to be more aligned with the search terms. The model wasn’t going to scale, but it was a good start). So, what would search look like without Google? Possibly more fragmented, with business being split more evenly between Yahoo!, Alta Vista and other search services. Yahoo! may have avoided the transformation into an “all things for all people” portal, since it wouldn’t have needed to differentiate itself as much as it felt was necessary. Its possible that some other firm may have been able to step up to the plate to dominate. Alternatively, we could have seen more use of search aggregators like DogPile taking the lead, suing advertising as a revenue stream and paying the search engines for their data.
The author’s next discussion is Microsoft. While Google has had an effect on Microsoft’s direction, I think it is naive of the author to assume that Google has done much to Microsoft on their core business: Office and Windows. Office is still far and away the leader in business suites. Windows still owns the desktop and SMB server market by a wide margin. While that market may be shrinking, it is doing so very, very slowly, and mainly to small businesses and home users. The bulk of IT spending is expected to be on Windows-based system and Office, and will be for some time. For e-mail and group communications, Microsoft’s biggest competitor to Exchange is Lotus Notes. For companies in regulated industries, service like Gmail aren’t even on their radar.
It is true that Microsoft has stumbled around quite a bit on Internet-related services, but they were doing this when Yahoo! was still the leader. Microsoft also had a chance to keep the mobile market they had taken away from Handspring (and subsequently Palm), but Google had nothing to do with Microsoft losing that. That event occurred because a company out of Waterloo, Ontario offered a superior product that met the needs of the business community. The rise of the iPhone next, and the subsequent rise of Android, have exasperated that situation, but Google didn’t put Microsoft there.
Even without Google, cloud computing and Software as a Service (SaaS) would still have done what it has done. Amazon did more initially on cloud computing, and firms like IBM and Oracle did as much for SaaS as Google did. Google may have bought its way into the shared video space, but it still has yet to have an answer to Facebook or Twitter. Gmail is nice and all, but without them, we would still have Hotmail, MobileMe and others. Google provided a better service, but they didn’t fill a void, they just built a better experience.
The author’s last assertion was that without Google, Apple (or at least the iPhone) wouldn’t be doing as well. Google has had a minor role in the success of Apple. Apple’s resurgence has more to do with the return of Steve Jobs and how he has set the course for Apple than anything Google did. Yes, the iPhone had Google Maps and YouTube. But, without Google, some other firm would have provided map services, and YouTube would have been a success without Google (and likely had still been on the iPhone). Besides, most people didn’t buy the iPhone because of Maps and YouTube. People bought the iPhone for a whole host of other reasons. Google’s presence has helped, but its absence wouldn’t have been missed.
There is no question that Google has been a force in the IT world. Google is staffed by some very, very smart people. But, the only 2 substantial things Google built on its own that still sustain the company are search and ads. Android has potential, but it could still stumble if handset makers decide to abandon it in favour of their own homegrown systems (unlikely, but guys like HTC and Samsung continue to toy with the idea). Google’s fate in the mobile space is largely out of their hands. Google bought into the shared video space with Youtube, and mobile advertising with Admob. Google buys a lot of companies all the time. In many ways, what Google has done is to scare other companies into doing things, more than doing things on their own. Yes, Google built Android and Chrome. But Android is still lagging, and for better or worse, is having to deal with the spectre of fragmentation because of the rapid release cycle for the OS. Chrome has yet to see the light of day as anything but a public prototype (calling what was released a beta is being generous), and pre-announcing it this far in advance simply makes living up to the hype all that much harder.
Google’s biggest risk is if their ad business suffers a setback or collapses altogether. That is their only substantial revenue stream, and without it, I could foresee a firesale of all of the assets Google has accumulated over time if their cash pile runs low. If anyone wanted to try to take down Google, this would be the way to get them: take away the bread-and-butter. That will be hard, given a lot of the ad revenue comes from the search site itself. But no company is invincible (just ask IBM about that one).
Going back to the premise that things would be very different without Google: I’m not convinced this is the case. Like nature, business and innovation both abhor a vacuum. Without Google, other companies would have stepped in to fill the voids. It may have resulted more many different companies rather than one, monolithic company like Google. The complexion of the Internet and related services may have looked different, but it would have been substantially the same as it is today.