“Google is a crack dealer” is a phrase Larry Page never wanted to hear: but as the company’s relationships with developers begin to fracture across the board — from the web to mobile to apps — it is losing its grip on its own destiny.


“Google is like a crack dealer,” one frustrated startup founder told me recently. “They give you something that gets you hooked, but you end up strung out. You’re so dependent on somebody that you can’t do anything about it.”

He was talking about a now-familiar bait-and-switch that Google keeps running on web businesses. First, the search giant offers a little traffic boost to sites that organize data in certain useful ways. Then it turns the game on its head and — without any notice — starts using that structured data to inform its own services. Finally, with a disturbing inevitability, it launches its own competing product that steps in and replace yours.

By the time it starts happening, you’re already in… and there’s no way back.

Google has done this across a number of areas, perhaps most famously in local listings — witness the clash between Yelp and Hotpot — and travel (upsetting Kayak)… and it just keeps on going.

“What’s happened in the past has made us wary of them,” said the founder, who asked to remain anonymous.

“I can’t imagine Apple or Facebook behaving like this. I mean, why build for Google?”

Little respect

Those comments are not unusual. In fact, they come as just the latest in a series of growing frustrations and irritations that seem to be building among the developer community. Initiatives like Google+ and Search Plus Your World want to turn Google’s substantial reach inside out and become a serious platform, yet the company treats third party developers with little respect.

The result is that it gets very little love back.

Last year our own Barb Darrow highlighted problems with Google App Engine and its cloud services in a piece called “Why Google gets no respect from developers”.

 Google’s cloud, as massive as it is, is seen as something of a roach motel for applications: you can check them in, but not necessarily check them out should you opt for another deployment choice. Developers say once they write for GAE, the application is locked in.

That’s difficult to stomach from a company that has built its vast mobile business — among others — on the idea that closed is bad and open is good. Faced with privacy concerns, the company is happy to trumpet data portability for users (though quite where they can take their liberated data is unclear), while at the same time developers and information are effectively locked in.

And then there’s the problem of delivering on your promises. Android developers across Europe have been reporting that payments due from Google have not been delivered.

All of this has built to a point where, now, the people who build web applications are becoming incredibly cautious about the company that is, for many users, synonymous with the web.

Take the decision by Foursquare to drop Google Maps — part of a trend of companies to defect to other mapping services. Yes, there are financial considerations — but there’s also an issue of trust.

Just this week, in a notorious post why he left Google for Microsoft, former engineering director James Whittaker suggested that there were few reasons for builders to trust a company that is increasingly losing its focus on innovation in favor of a focus on advertising:

The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.

Technically I suppose Google has always been an advertising company, but for the better part of the last three years, it didn’t feel like one. Google was an ad company only in the sense that a good TV show is an ad company: having great content attracts advertisers.

Take it with a pinch of salt, but it’s an important signal.

Would you trust them?

Mathew wrote yesterday about the problem with Google+ not being design, but demand. That’s true. But there’s a deeper, longer-term problem taking root here too.

Google realizes that its services must be platforms to succeed. After all, the companies it now eyes up enviously did precisely that. Facebook only became a truly significant force when it turned into a platform. Apple too, leapt up the ladder when it became an app platform that enabled developers to connect with users all over the world. And, of course, Microsoft blazed the trail by turning the whole operating system into the most powerful platform (there’s a reason Steve Ballmer made a fool of himself by shouting “developers”.)

Of course all these companies have had their problems in relationships with developers — whether it’s money, access, transparency or something else. But there’s no doubt that where the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, developers will vote with their feet.

And, as an increasing number of developers feel that Google will treat them poorly, or that it is simply too much of a threat, it’s lost the future. Yet Larry Page is even telling his own engineers that they should leave if they don’t agree with his plan to focus on a “single, unified, ‘beautiful’ product across everything”. If that’s what’s happening inside the Googleplex, what hope for those on the outside?

Let’s go back to where we started: the startup founder who sees Google as a drug dealer looking to offer him a sweetener that gets him addicted. Since he doesn’t want that to happen, he’s left with that single question.

“I mean, why build for Google?”

Why indeed.

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  1. Google is big enough and has enough money (and, I think, self awareness) that it can still course correct. They have been innovative in a few key areas (search, mapping, advertising, and online documents) and I think they should stick to what they know. What troubles me a little bit is the scepticism rampant on blogs of James Whittaker. This is a guy who was ON THE GOOGLE+ TEAM. His statements are not hearsay. This is THE guy who should know what their goals were and if they met them. It was indeed conceived as a direct competitor to Facebook and it has failed, despite what Google fans might want to say. It couldn’t be clearer.

    Google is having the problems in the search space that Apple is having in the media space. Their service was so far ahead of competitors and so successful that they now get to name their terms and wield incredible power. Obviously their partners will be on the losing end of negotiations and are left with the option of doing business with the also-rans or giving in.

  2. “Google, Google, Google …”
    What’s with the constant Google bashing?! Also “bait and switch” and “drug dealing”?! are you now shilling for their competitors now?

    Also that alleged Page quote was refuted.

    1. Ah, the old standby, “bashing!”.

      When meaningful discourse isn’t availble, we trot out the old, “silence the messenger” bit by calling all disagreement, “bashing”.

      It’s the intellectual equivalent of, “Yeah, sez you!”.

  3. The idea was to adopt outside technologies, extend DOS to include them, then eliminate as a competitor the original developer of the technology. This was before Microsoft figured out that it actually needed third-party developers.[1]

    Google has one focus, number of eyeballs it can sell to advertisers. Hence if a developer brings eyeballs sooner or later they will try to capture those. Apple has a variety of services and products to sell, hence a focus which spans all “better”. But I would be really surprised if they “open” up SIRI for example, they guard these products and services while Google tries to take over like the good old MS.

    1. Lessons from Redmond

  4. Kirk Patrick Friday, March 16, 2012

    Yup another FUD article courtesy of Microsoft. I thought Microsoft smear campaign against Google has stopped.

    For those who reads this don’t believe what this author said. Research it for yourself be informed with untwisted information.

  5. Google wants to make money NOW, their pages are so full of ads and Google junk it’s sickening. Matt Cutts and other Google spinsters should be ashamed of the lies they tell for money.

  6. Really ?? Why won’t I build for Google ? Who is giving me better maps API for nothing , till I get to the point where I can afford to build my own infrastructure. Who is giving me developer tools like Closure library for nothing ? Microsoft ? And what makes the Anonymous Founder Guy thinks that Microsoft, Apple , Facebook or Twitter will not get into his territory sooner or later ? Everyone is doing it and I am little disappointed to see this poor quality bitching on Gigaom. If you want to bitch, bitch good, and don’t quote that guy who worked for 3 years with Google as a developer and as a non contributor.

  7. Nullality Photography Friday, March 16, 2012

    to say that Apple and Microsoft would never do this is laughable, where do you think they learned this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdrKWArr3XY

  8. I generally defend Google on consumer issues, particularly the (non-)privacy issues, but dealing with them as a business is a different animal.

    For example, I use AdSense to pay the bills on a number of Web sites. I allocate inventory and set pricing thresholds based on their performance. So imagine my horror when they say they’re only paying me half of what I allegedly made last month.

    If that wasn’t bad enough, I have no recourse. There are no humans to contact. Short of flying to California and suing them, there’s nothing I can do.

  9. Manpreet Singh Friday, March 16, 2012

    Google is among the best and most transparent platforms to develop out there, not to mention the plethora of services that the users and developers get for free. Sure, they charge and raise prices when they have to. They’re not a non-profit anyway.

    What better platform options do you see anyway? Facebook? Microsoft? Apple?

  10. Damned if the do…

    Go back a couple of years, and note all the articles about Google’s clusterfeck of poorly integrated products that looked like they were designed by engineers. They needed to figure out what they wanted to be “when they grew up,” yep — take a page from Apple.

    Jump forward two years…

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