Google vs everyone: an epic war on many fronts

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June, it seems, is the season for new product announcements in Silicon Valley. At its annual WWDC shindig,  Apple announced a slew of new products including its hot-new Macbook Pro with Retina display and iOS 6. A few days later, Microsoft announced Surface, a new tablet/computer that has been designed by Microsoft team and will be sold under the Microsoft brand in Microsoft stores.

And this week it seems it is Google’s turn. So far, it has announced massive upgrades to its search platform, the newest version of Android (Jellybean)the Google Glass, the Nexus 7 tablet and a new multimedia device, Nexus Q. It is also likely to introduce a new cloud offering at its Google I/O event, as I reported earlier.

However, when you stand back from all the announcements made by Google today and increase the periphery, you start to notice that this is a company that is fighting a lot of battles on many fronts. In some places it is winning, but most places it is trench warfare.

It is still the king of search and advertising. It is doing quite well when it comes to Android, though they never really talk about its real financial impact on Google’s business. I would argue that Google Apps and Google Chrome OS have a decent shot of carving out a meaningful role inside corporations, retailers, airlines and campuses. Google Maps is a market leader and well, there is nothing like YouTube – though the monetary impact of the video colossus is still kept under a fog by Google. However, this is where the list of sure things end. Simply take a look at this list of what I believe are important battles Google is fighting, and you begin to understand the challenges that Google faces.

Apple

  • Google’s Android is fighting with Apple’s iOS platform. It says a million new devices are being activated every day and there are 400 million Android devices out there.
  • Google just launched Nexus 7 to essentially compete with Apple’s iPad and other tablets in the market.
  • Google TV and Apple TV are in competition for the dollars and attention of connected-entertainment consumers.
  • Google Drive vs iCloud.
  • Google Maps versus Apple Maps.
  • Google Wallet/Play versus the Apple iTunes platform.
  • Google Books, Google Music and other Media versus iTunes and iBooks.

Microsoft

  • Google’s Chrome OS is taking on Microsoft’s OS.
  • Google Apps versus Microsoft Office Apps.
  • Google Android versus Microsoft Windows 8 platform.
  • Google Nexus 7 tablet versus Microsoft Surface tablet.
  • Google Cloud will be competing for Microsoft’s Azure cloud and developer affections.
  • Google Drive versus Microsoft Skydrive.
  • Google Search versus Microsoft Bing.

Amazon

  • Google Nexus 7 versus Amazon’s Kindle Fire.
  • Google Android platform versus the Amazon Fork.
  • Google Cloud wants to challenge Amazon Web Services.
  • Google Wallet versus Amazon payment system.
  • Google Books, Google Music and other media plays versus Amazon Music, Books and Media

Facebook

  • Google+ versus Facebook.
  • Google messaging versus Facebook Messaging.
  • Google Picasa versus Facebook Photos.
  • Google Ad Platform versus Facebook Ad Platform.
  • Google Search versus Facebook Social Discovery.

And there are some other companies Google is tussling with.

  • Google Drive versus DropBox as a hub of mobile data and apps.
  • Google Nexus Q versus Sonos.
  • Google Local versus Yelp.
  • Google Wallet versus Paypal, Square.
  • Google Search versus Twitter.
  • Google+ versus Twitter.
  • Google’s YouTube versus others such as Hulu.

The human cost of these battles

When I see Google fighting those battles, I can’t help but recall those history lessons. Rome, Napoleon and his Napoleonic wars, the Ottoman empire – they all took on challenges on multiple fronts and eventually lost. The human costs proved to be too much. Google too faces a similar dilemma. Admittedly, it has all the money in the world, but despite tens of thousands of employees, it lacks the star power to win on all fronts. Google no longer has a monopoly on attracting great talent to its team.

Bret Taylor, outgoing CTO of Facebook & ex-Googler

Google today has to keep buying companies to attract talent, but frankly that may not be enough. There are rivals who offer more attractive options to the Bret Taylors (ex-Google Maps & then CTO, Facebook) of the world. Why work at Google Wallet when you can get a gig at Square? Why stay at Google when Facebook beckons? Why be a product manager when you can start Instagram and cash out for a cool billion?

Having followed Google from its very inception, I know that Google’s product and experience was far superior to its competitors, many of who were essentially weakly run companies that were hobbled by the dot-com bust. Yahoo, despite its size, wasn’t really a great competitor for Google’s search technology and was too plodding in its embrace of search-based advertising.

Microsoft, too, was focused on its software businesses to actually put up a good fight in the marketplace. The second decade of the 21st century is proving to be a much tougher place for Google. The new rivals — everyone from Apple and Facebook to upstarts like Dropbox and Square — are more more fierce, more focused and more hungry.  The attitude of me-too-ism isn’t enough for Google.

As Google tries to expand into new territories it is leaving its core search vulnerable — not to another rival’s technology, but to end-users. The injection of Google+ into search results seems to be a growing point of dissatisfaction.

In my years of following the company, I came to understand that what separated Google from many of its competitors was its audacity. When search was supposed to be a dead-end, they did one better. When advertising was mired in morass, they took an existing idea of text ads and turned it into mega-billion dollar empire. The scale of Google’s infrastructure and belief that software was indeed going to be the intelligence inside a company were concepts that were inherently futuristic and ambitious. Google Mail and Google Maps are two other projects that started small but proved to have that special Google quality.

When I look at the first day of Google I/O, I am left impressed by Google Glass. The product itself is too nerdy and it still has ways to go before it becomes an everyday product. Nevertheless, it represents a bit of old Google. It represents the kind of things the company needs to do in order to leap forward of its rivals.

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