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Summary:

We admire Google. We’re impressed by Google’s accomplishments. But we’re wary of Google’s relentless ambition and its at-times curious thoughts about our world.

Google
photo: google

At this point in its history, Google is like that good friend who is extremely accomplished and successful but who you really, really hope doesn’t fall in love with a relative.

One of Silicon Valley’s greatest contributions to the tech industry is a company that most of us gladly put at the center of our online world every day in some form or another to help us manage our lives, yet it’s a company that makes us a little queasy when we stop to think about the side effects of its relentless push forward. Perhaps that was best evidenced this past week in San Francisco during Google I/O, when Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page took the stage at the end of the company’s seemingly interminable keynote to deliver a heartfelt speech about the role of technology in our lives and Google’s quest to make the world a better place.

Larry Page, Google

Most of what Page said (in a hoarse, whispery voice that is a lingering gift from a bout of vocal-cord paralysis) was exactly the type of aspirational thinking you want to see from technology leaders: (all quotes courtesy of TechHive’s transcription of Page’s talk)

“And I’m amazed every day I come to work, the list of things that needs to be done is longer than the day before. And the opportunity of those things is bigger than it was before. And because of that we, as Google, and as an industry–all of you–really only have one percent of what is possible. Probably even less than that.”

As Page spoke, Google’s stock price rose noticeably. It closed the week at an all-time high of $909.19, a price which valued the company at just over $300 billion. While the advertising market that underwrites Google’s ambitions is going through a bit of flux as we switch the center of our online lives from desktop computing to mobile computing, it’s pretty clear from the breadth of products showcased at Google I/O that if even a few of Google’s long-term bets pay off, the company is well-positioned to be a force in technology for decades to come with products that are, at times, remarkably useful.

But then Page kept talking.

First he decried negativity in the tech industry, which while indeed a bit over the top at times, is a pretty silly thing to highlight considering that one of Google’s early goals — once it had established itself as a search superstar in the early 2000s — was to destroy Microsoft’s hammerlock on the tech industry. And one of its more recent goals was to prevent Apple from seizing control of the smartphone market with the iPhone.

Google Apple Vic Gundotra Google I/O 2011

Things like Google Docs were conceived in part to dent Microsoft’s monopoly over office-productivity software and move more people onto the web, where Google benefits. The early marketing campaigns that Google and its partners chose for Android were similarly adversarial, highlighting the fact that “Droid Does” as a response to Apple’s tight control of the App Store approval process. And in 2010, summoning perhaps the greatest rhetorical flair showcased at a Google I/O, Google’s Vic Gundotra compared Apple co-founder Steve Jobs to the faceless overlords of George Orwell’s books, warning that if it wasn’t for Android, we “faced a draconian future where one man, one phone, one carrier were our choice.”

That selective memory wasn’t enough. Page proceeded to uncork some of the most truly head-scratching things a Google CEO has ever said, and that’s something considering the pace at which former Google CEO and current Chairman Eric Schmidt used to poorly execute jokes about identity and privacy concerns with a condescending smarmy tone.

“You know, if you look different kinds of laws we make, and things like that, they’re very old. I mean, the laws when we went public were 50 years old. (A) law can’t be right if it’s 50 years old. Like, it’s before the Internet.”

Page did not follow up with a request to dismantle the Bill of Rights, but even casual thoughts that laws predating the Kennedy assassination have no relevance today should raise eyebrows when expressed by one of the world’s richest men, especially one who is sitting on a treasure trove of personally identifiable data. Sure, there are things like copyright laws that make less sense in today’s era, but why not single those out instead painting with such a wide brush?

Big Brother is watching you

And then there was this gem:

“There’s many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can’t do ’cause they’re illegal or they’re not allowed by regulation. And that makes sense, we don’t want our world to change too fast. … I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out: What is the effect on society? What’s the effect on people? Without having to deploy it into the normal world.”

Imagine: an area of the world set aside for totally unregulated and unsupervised experimentation. What could possibly go wrong?

So stands Google at this moment in its history. It has brought so many wonderful products into our lives, from search and Google Maps to Android and Google Fiber. Yet it is clearly bent on accelerating the pace of change in our world without fully comprehending, as Page’s comments show, the need to avoid fixing things that aren’t broken.

New technologies are always going to have positive and negative effects on society, and it’s our job as consumers, observers, and regulators to sort those out. Perhaps more than any other single company at present, Google is at the forefront of those positive and negative changes; organizing the world’s information and connecting the planet to the web so that personally identifiable databases of one’s likes, dislikes and peccadillos can be served up on a platter to the advertising industry.

That makes Google worth a lot of money. It also makes Google worth a lot of scrutiny. If Page thinks his company and industry is currently beset by what he considers “negativity,” he’s in for a surprise over the next decade.

Larry Page image courtesy Getty Images / Justin Sullivan. Billboard image courtesy Flickr user Thomas Leuthard.

  1. Dave Girouard Sunday, May 19, 2013

    You make claims of motivation on Google’s part for which you have no proof. Eg the motivation for creating Google Docs, much of which originated outside Google.

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    1. Come on, Dave. While the pieces may have originated outside Google and may have been assembled with the intent of improving collaboration through the web, for an awfully long time the marketing of the business has focused squarely on it being an 80-percent good-enough alternative to Microsoft Office at a fraction of the cost.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/16/technology/16goog.html?pagewanted=all

      Google wants to move things onto the web. Microsoft has long preferred things stay the way they are. I’m not saying Google sought out the technology that would become Google Docs with the sole intent of trying to make Ballmer mad, but in order to convince people the web was an alternative to Office you had to compete head-on with one of his most profitable divisions.

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      1. Dave Girouard Sunday, May 19, 2013

        I don’t get your thesis. Larry speaks out against negativity and slamming of competition and you cite creation of Google Docs as proof that he’s full of it? He didn’t speak out against competition. and you have no special knowledge of our indecision to pursue Docs.

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        1. Dave Girouard Sunday, May 19, 2013

          Oops: decision rather than indecision (“paging Dr. Freud”)

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          1. The point is that old guards need to be torn down to make way for new guards, which involves some necessary negativity. Larry decried negativity in general and then went on to complain about Microsoft and Oracle. I’m not saying he’s wrong to complain about them, but don’t claim the high road and then complain that other companies are “difficult” because they don’t see the world the way you do.

            The point about Google Docs (I think the iPhone/Android thing is more salient to the overall point, but whatever) is that Google, in order to promote what it sees as a good idea (web-based office productivity software) has to convince folks used to something else that the new thing is better. I know for a fact that not every pitch to skeptical CIOs involved the power of positive thinking.

            What’s weird to me (and to plenty of others) is the clear implication that Google believes itself above it the mudslinging when its actions indicate that it often operates like any other multibillion dollar corporation.

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      2. If it weren’t for Google, there wouldn’t a viable competition for Apple’s iphone, microsoft office, Facebook to name a few. I’m for one glad that Google is daring enough to enter every market because it keeps all the other giants in check. Now with Google Fiber, they are motivating all the other telco’s to do something instead of milking every dime and penny from you without offering anything new or better. Microsoft can’t charge all consumers a whole load of money for office and windows because Google will be there to pick up people who are dissatisfied. Facebook can’t run a mock with our data because Google is there is Google+. Facebook for one has gotten better with the introduction of the ghost town that is Google+. Why competiton. Apple’s iphone has gotten better and cheaper because why? Cause of Android. Google entering market is good for competition. How about some articles focus on this? The positive attributes for Google entering every market. OH ya almost forgot, I used to absolutely loath browsers before Chrome came on the seen. Now look at how Browsers perform? Without trying to regulate Google, maybe someone should try competing with Google in the marketplace. Why do Google products dominate? Because they are really good. Its so easy to switch search engines. Its really easy to switch the browser but yet more and more people are using it. Why?
        How about you sir write an article how Google has helped competition by entering all these markets without seeing the negativity in all things Google does, as Page said. I could go on and on. Yes sometimes the things they do seem creepy but look at all the Good they’ve done without charging consumers a leg and a hand like Apple and Microsoft do.

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  2. Well that was a great way of hearing what you wanted to hear. Where do these writers come from? You don’t think he was talking about three way the world has changed and how laws need to be kept up with that change? No, he obviously wants to destroy the Bill of Rights. Really? This is Sunday journalism, sensational claptrap.

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    1. Well said.

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  3. Aaron Berlin Sunday, May 19, 2013

    Page thinks that a law that’s older than 50 years can’t be a good law? Thomas Jefferson thought we should have a revolution every 20 years! Not that either of them are right, but in a world where too many people are focused on what worked before, it’s good to have a few people in powerful positions that more worried about being held back by the dead hand of the past than being overly deferential to it.

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  4. Larry Page wants more positive coverage of Google, but Google continues to make anticompetitive decisions to the detriment of customers. The removal of Exchange Activesync support for many users is a case in point. Leo Laporte mentioned this same point on “This Week in Google”.

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    1. Dave Girouard Sunday, May 19, 2013

      It’s msft that requires everybody to pay to use EAS. It could have been an industry standard and instead it’s a minuscule msft revenue stream.

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      1. If Google was so opposed to paying for EAS Google should have never supported it in the first place!

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  5. Any one read Faust? Frankenstein? It’s a classic question of driven individuals charging ahead in the name of progress without considering the potential ramifications .. aka hubris. Given our current state with global warming, I think it would be nice (wishful thinking?) for those in a position to truly change the world to exercise a slightly more conservative perspective with regards to new development lest our trans-humanist fantasies come true for good or ill. After all, pursuit of the wonderful star trek computer might very well lead to Skynet instead.

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  6. He’s also said Google is an important company and that comes with more scrutiny, they accept it. I don’t see how they enter new markets equal to being negative, his point is we can compete with each other without focusing on obstructing opponents at ever turn

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  7. Gear Mentation Sunday, May 19, 2013

    Yeah, guess what? The world already has those unregulated places for technological experimentation… that is, for example, why people go to other countries to get certain medical therapies. We just don’t have a place like that in the USA. Maybe farming out fringe experiments to the underdeveloped world is a good thing… or maybe we should keep some of that knowledge closer to home?

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  8. Google is a Ad company easy.

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  9. Cruise Brantley Sunday, May 19, 2013

    This article seems to act as though disrupting markets that are current or potential monopolies is a bad thing. I’m personally very thankful for Google going into android, docs, Google fiber, and creating cheap nexus devices as they are all very beneficial to choice for the consumer while lowering prices and increasing innovation substantially.

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    1. The main point of this article and others like it is to be fashionably anti-Google. Ironically, the very kind of negativity that Larry Page was requesting people to avoid. There are valid things about Google that can and should be criticized. But this speech by Larry Page isn’t one of them.

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      1. I went on a rant to say this exact same thing haha

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      2. As I just mentioned above, the clear implication of Page’s speech is that Google is above the behaviors he decries, when history shows it is not.

        You want to end negativity, Mr. Page? Surely you have control of your company’s marketing messages.

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        1. as I read the article, I keep wondering if you’re taking his talk out of context. Especially about this negativity thing since it was actually an answer to a question that you conveniently left out. after reading your reply above, I see that you did. ou, well…

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  10. I too have mixed feelings a bout Google and its products. Although I have used Google Docs Apps and nor Drive for my ventures since it began with these products. I now find for some of my ventures I have switched to Microsoft’s Office 365 and Skydrive for some ventures simply because I worry about targeted advertising that makes me aware that Google has scanned documents that include”proprietary information” of my client. I have received ads for things contained In Purchase Orders sent via my domains obtained in conjunction with google apps.

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