In the midst of the busyness of this time of year, I was struck by a quote in a December 21 2010 tweet by Dion Almaer @dalmaer (retweeted by Markus Leutwyler @twtomcat earlier this week):
Google’s weapon of choice is more often open source and open standards.
Dion sourced the quote from an interesting post by Paul Buchheit entitled Four reasons Google is still Awesome. While I readily confess that I have not digested the rather polar range of comments generated by his post, I do want to take the time to explore the threads of competition and monopoly initially in this post and continuing in my follow-on posts.
I will start by quoting the entirety of the following response by Mark Sigal to Paul’s post:
I’d challenge your assertion that Google competes in positive ways. If anything, their strategy is ripped from the Microsoft PC-era playbook; namely, commoditize the way your competition makes money so as to choke off its oxygen supply, while gaining you more market share in the way YOU make money (advertising, in Google’s case).
When Microsoft did this, we called it predatorial and monopolistic, yet you’d call it competing in positive ways?
Case in point, Android has enabled carriers to re-establish software and service fiefdoms that they were well on their way to losing, owing to the rise of iPhone. How does the consumer win in that case?
And is “open” Google all that open when it comes to making transparent and open their own proprietary differentiation? Hardly: think search index and keyword arbitrage.
Don’t get me wrong. Google is great at what they do, and on points 1,2 and 4, give them full props, but the company is every bit the assassin that Apple, Facebook, Amazon and the like are when it comes to competition.
On the competition point, I believe that competition is simply what business does and should be expected to do. Furthermore, competition is competition, whether open or closed, which is belied by Paul’s very selection of the phrase “weapon of choice”. What is particularly interesting about “open” competition is that it sometimes does not seem like competition at all given the intuitive appeal of the “level playing field”. In fact, the level playing field is frequently the preferred battle-ground for the dominant player since it offers no impediment to its continued dominance while offering a faint promise, if not illusion, of success to the other players and consumers.
In some ways, this parallels the challenge of formal equality in a just society. In the famous words of Anatole France, ”the law in its majesty prohibits rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges”, and the same is unfortunately also true of formal equality and its promise of a level playing field. While I am well aware of the many great perils of alternative approaches, I am increasing convinced that only true path to a just society is found in tilting that playing field to create substantive equality for the disadvantaged. Thus ends my aside!
On the topic of monopoly, I am deeply concerned that the “open” we see from Google is most often peripheral in the sense that it is either at the ends of, or irrelevant to, the core Google monopoly (as flagged in Mark’s comment). While I have no evidence that Google has violated any of its 10 core principles, including ”You can make money without doing evil”, I am uneasy with the concentration of power that is inherent in Google’s stated goal “to bring all the world‘s information to people seeking answers”. Although I am no expert on monopolies and anti-trust, it seems to me that Google, in its current form, rivals anything that society faced from the Standard Oil, AT&T, or Microsoft at the zenith of their powers. In many ways, the AT&T fact scenario, divestiture remedies, and lessons learned seem very apropos to the current situation with Google.
I often quip in my day job, that my role is to worry when my client is not worried and to be paranoid when my client is worried. These days, I simply worry about Google although there are times that I worry that I am not being paranoid! Perhaps I worry most because the very government regulators that tackled the titans of monopolies past, seem oddly unconcerned. Although I confess that I am making a lot more use of Bing and Mapquest these days and that I have never had a gmail account, I share Paul aspiration that, “Hopefully I don’t come off as a hater or a fan boy, but simply an honest observer”. Seasons Greetings!