“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 (s:GOOG) 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.
“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?”
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 (s:AAPL) 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 (s:MSFT) 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?”