Results tagged “theoryofmind”

Google's Microsoft Moment

July 9, 2009

I'm not sure Google's new Chrome OS announcement is that big a deal, or that the eventual product that gets released will actually have that much impact, but it's a useful milestone in marking Google's evolution towards becoming an older company with a distinctly different culture than they used to have.

This is, for lack of a better term, Google's "Microsoft Moment". This is the point when the difference between their internal conception of the company starts to diverge just a bit too far from the public perception of the company, and even starts to diverge from reality. At this inflection point, the reasons for doing new things at Google start to change.

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Let me be clear: I don't think Google is "turning evil". Hell, I've caught a lot of flack for the fact that basically I don't think Microsoft was evil. But there are some notable trends going on across Google today that could cause the company to compromise its stated values and that will certainly cause people to think Google is being evil, if not corrected. I'll try to outline a few key cultural indicators from around Google.

Designing for corporate synergy, not for users

Google's recent development work on applications for mobile devices has often been delivered exclusively as applications for their own Android platform instead of as iPhone applications, despite the fact that iPhones are roughly forty times more popular in the marketplace. iPhones are also much more popular outside of the United States than Android, further limiting the actual audience served by these applications. Now, it's obviously good company policy to make sure to support Google's own platforms, and Google does an admirable job of using generic open web technologies where possible to avoid having to choose between platforms at all. But choosing to leave the majority of users in a given market unaddressed because they are on a platform that is not part of your corporate goals is short-sighted and leaves a lingering sense of mistrust.

If you look at Microsoft ten years ago, or even as recently as five years ago, they had a tendency to say "Well, we've got a version that works on Windows Mobile." or "This works on Internet Explorer" and feel that they'd done their job for addressing mobile or the web. Or Windows Media Player would connect to XBox but not to any other systems for sharing media. They were putting their corporate agenda ahead of what the marketplace had chosen as its preferred platforms. But after all these years, Microsoft's internal teams have finally started to develop their web or mobile versions of products to work on competitor's browsers and competitor's mobile platforms, recognizing that they have to go where the users are, instead of favoring only the platforms created by their corporate siblings. Google appears to be headed the other way.

Forgetting what the real world uses, and favoring what's convenient for your own business goals is a quick way to have customers think you don't care, and to indicate to partners or developers that pleasing Google is more important than pleasing customers.

Multiple competing product lines: Chrome OS and Android

This is one of the simplest and most obvious examples, after this week's announcements: Google is now offering not one, but two mobile operating systems. While they undoubtedly share code, I can't help but think back to ten years ago, when Microsoft was vehemently protesting about how much code was shared between the Windows NT/Windows 2000 operating systems and the Windows 95/98/ME operating systems. If I make a screen two inches smaller, should I use Android instead of Chrome OS? If the keyboard works with my fingers instead of my thumbs, I should use Chrome OS and not Android? I know Google is convinced its employees are smarter than everyone else in the world, but this is a product management problem, not a computer science problem.

Changing methods of communication

Within Google, I'm sure the perception is that their public-facing communications are still very "Googley". Now, Google does an excellent job of maintaining and using an enormous number of official corporate blogs in dozens of languages for a rapidly-blossoming number of products and initiatives. But despite my admiration for that effort, and their commendable willingness to forgo the usual boring press releases, the way that the company communicates with the public has fundamentally changed, and not necessarily in a more human direction.

In lieu of blog posts or simple word-of-mouth, as helped popularize the Google search engine itself ten years ago, efforts like Chrome are being accompanied by television ads, complete with all of the production values of primetime TV. Instead of launching a new developer initiative by promoting an SDK on their blog, Google is filling convention centers, Apple-style, with day-long developer presentations and an Oprahesque giveaway of free phones under every seat. Instead of white papers, there are highly-produced comic books being distributed to the press to explain the value of Chrome.

Now, I actually support these types of outreach. Getting outside of the insular tech bubble requires higher production values and clearer messaging. But when Google evokes Apple or Microsoft or Oracle in its style of communicating ideas, and when cell phone ads on TV say "Powered by Google", an average consumer's conception of Google essentially shifts to seeing this company not as "those guys who do the search engine" but instead as another consumer electronics company, like Samsung or Sony, but a little more hip.

This would be okay, except that I doubt Google's internal self-image as an organization has changed to reflect this new reality. "We're not like some giant company with flashy TV ads — we're just a bunch of geeks in Mountain View!" And while that might be true for the vast number of engineers who define the company's internal culture, the external impression of Google being just another tech titan like Microsoft will gain footing, making the audience for Google's messages less tolerant of ambiguity and less forgiving of mistakes.

Only the last generation of companies can be evil, not us!

Though it's almost impossible to picture now, in the era when Microsoft was formed, IBM was synonymous with an almost Orwellian dominance of information technology. It's been a full 40 years since the antitrust actions against IBM, and IBM is seen as a bastion of open-sourceness now, but Microsoft's founding mindset clearly was shaped with the idea that "those old guys from the last generation are evil, and we're the nimble, smart upstarts who are going to humanize this industry". Sound familiar?

Though it's hard to believe, the FTC's first investigations against Microsoft began eighteen years ago. When Microsoft reached its apex in terms of public perception and industry respect, with the launch of Windows 95, the culture inside the company still largely saw themselves as upstarts against old, proprietary behemoths. Though Microsoft's headcount has increased fivefold since then, at the time of Windows 95's launch, they had about 17,000 employees.

Google's headcount just passed roughly 20,000 employees. And most of those staff members are firmly convinced that evil, or at least incompetence, is a trait of the last generation's dominant tech player: Microsoft. The idea that developers or customers might start to bristle at their dominance is met with the (true, yet irrelevant) argument about how open their data and platforms are. Eric Schmidt said yesterday that Chrome OS is so open that Microsoft could make Internet Explorer for it, though of course the effort of porting the browser would be prohibitively complex. By neatly inverting the framing of the conversation ("We didn't bundle a browser with our OS, we bundled an OS with our browser!"), Google's avoided having to confront the parallels between this moment in their corporate culture and Microsoft's similar moment of ascendancy 15 years ago.

Still haven't developed Theory of Mind

And finally, as I outlined two years ago, Google still hasn't developed theory of mind. From my piece then:

This shortcoming exists at a deep cultural level within the organization, and it keeps manifesting itself in the decisions that the company makes about its products and services. The flaw is one that is perpetuated by insularity, and will only be remedied by becoming more open to outside ideas and more aware of how people outside the company think, work and live.

Worse, because most of the dedicated detractors of Google have been either competing companies or nutjobs, it's been hard for Googlers to take criticisms seriously. That makes it easy to have defensiveness or dismissal of criticisms become a default response.

Conclusion

Google has made commendable steps towards communicating with those outside of its sphere of influence in the tech world. But the messages will be incomplete or insufficient as long as Google doesn't truly internalize and accept that its public perception is about to change radically. The era of Google as a trusted, "non-evil" startup whose actions are automatically assumed to be benevolent is over.

Years ago, GMail introduced context-sensitive ads and was unfairly pilloried for being anti-privacy or intrusive. And while there have been a few similar hand-slappings along the way, Google's never faced a widespread backlash against their influence or dominance from average consumers yet. Today, protestations of "but it's open source!" are being used to paper over real concerns about data ownership, and the truth is that open code doesn't necessarily imply that average users are in control.

And ultimately, once a tech company becomes dominant in its space, it's susceptible to a kind of reverse Hanlon's razor: Anything caused by stupidity or carelessness will instead be attributed to malice. Similar to the Law of Fail ("Once a web community has decided to dislike an idea, the conversation will shift from criticizing the idea to become a competition about who can be most scathing in their condemnation."), Google is entering the moment where it has to be over-careful not to offend, and extremely attentive to whether they are treading lightly.

Is Google evil? It doesn't matter. They've reached the point of corporate ambition and changing corporate culture that means they're going to be perceived as if they are. Whether they're able to truly internalize that lesson, accept it, and act accordingly will determine if they're able to extend their dominance in the years to come.

(Illustration courtesy of Federico Fieni.)

Related Reading:

Update: There's been a phenomenal reaction to the ideas discussed here. I rounded up a lot of the responses in a follow-up post. But it's also worth noting that a number of people from both within and without Google have pointed out that in many cases, the release of an Android application has preceded its counterpart iPhone equivalent due to delays in Apple's opaque approval process for applications on that platform, or because the Android applications were only created as hobbyist projects by Googlers in their free time. Similarly, a number of people have pointed out significant differences between Chrome OS and Android, such as the primary development environments (HTML5 and Java, respectively), memory limitations for applications, and the distribution model.

While I've certainly not meant to gloss over any of these clarifications as insignificant, and appreciate the additional information, the key argument I'm advancing here is about the overall impact of changes in Google's culture and perception. Many more examples can (and have) been identified to support that larger trend, and I'm pleased that the larger dialogue has focused on that bigger issue, inspiring some great conversation.

Google and Theory of Mind

December 14, 2007

Theory of mind is that thing that a two-year-old lacks, which makes her think that covering her eyes means you can't see her. It's the thing a chimpanzee has, which makes him hide a banana behind his back, only taking bites when the other chimps aren't looking.

Theory of mind is the awareness that others are aware, and its absence is the weakness that Google doesn't know it has. This shortcoming exists at a deep cultural level within the organization, and it keeps manifesting itself in the decisions that the company makes about its products and services. The flaw is one that is perpetuated by insularity, and will only be remedied by becoming more open to outside ideas and more aware of how people outside the company think, work and live.

With fundamental technologies like PageRank and AdWords, with key initiatives like Google News and their content publishing tools, and with today's announcement of Knol, Google has to develop a Theory of Mind as an organization, or face increasingly difficult challenges to the adoption and success of their new efforts.

Some Examples

1. Google's famous slogan isn't "do no evil" -- it's "don't be evil". That's setting the bar damnably low, but moreover it's forgetting how a flawed person might take that instruction. One could well justify making some seriously wrong choices rather frequently without feeling that the line of being evil had been crossed. A morally challenged person could argue that being 51% righteous and 49% evil with one's actions could clear the bar.

The predicate here is not that Google intends to be evil. Rather, the reality is that any organization consisting of 16,000 people, all of whom are privileged and believe themselves to be of above-average intelligence, is going to face ethical and moral concerns. If even 0.1% of employees ever reckon with such issues in a year, that's an average of more than one evil person per month. In an organization with so much power, information and control, that's more than enough to do serious damage, especially since the mere appearance of misbehavior could cause serious problems.

An awareness of how others might see this slogan, and its intent, would make obvious the fact that almost no one considers himself evil, thus making this goal meaningless.

2. Connecting PageRank to economic systems such as AdWords and AdSense corrupted the meaning and value of links by turning them into an economic exchange. Through the turn of the millennium, hyperlinking on the web was a social, aesthetic, and expressive editorial action. When Google introduced its advertising systems at the same time as it began to dominate the economy around search on the web, it transformed a basic form of online communication, without the permission of the web's users, and without explaining that choice or offering an option to those users.

Worse, the transformation was retroactive and the eventual mechanisms for opting out were incomplete in that the economic value could not be decoupled from the informational value. Inevitably, spammers arose to take advantage of the ability to create high-economic-value links at very low cost, causing vast damage to the ability to use links as a purely informational exchange. In addition, this forced Google to become more and more opaque about the refinements and adjustments it makes to its indexing algorithms, making a key part of their business less and less transparent over time. The eventual result has been the virtual decimation of communications systems like TrackBack, and absurdities like blogs linking to their own tag search results for key words in lieu of useful links, in an attempt to appease a search algorithm that they will never be allowed to fully understand.

An awareness of how a transformation in the fundamental value of links from informational to economic could have led Google to develop a system that separated editorial and aesthetic choices from economic ones, preventing the eventual link-spam arms race.

3. Adding features like comments from sources in a news story to Google News is an admirable attempt to bring unique value to aggregated news stories. But tasking a technology team with the duty to solicit and manage these comments ignores the fact that verifying, recording, and reporting a source is fundamentally an act of journalism. By trying to shoehorn a work of research into a primarily technological process, the news team faces the chance of fraud, abuse, error, or most likely, low participation and eventual abandonment.

An awareness that some types of information gathering require judgment and reasoning that's not well-handled by even the most clever algorithms would help Google make its transition into being a company that creates original content.

4. Google's announcement of Knol shows that they understand some of their key business drivers very well; With as much as 5% of the search result links for popular terms going to Wikipedia pages, a solution to capturing some of that traffic in an environment that Google can control and display ads on makes good business sense. The idea of sharing the earnings from that content with authors is also good business sense. But as with Google Pages (Page Creator), Blogger, Google Notebook, JotSpot, Google Docs/Writely and other tools, Google has not proven that it understands content creation and publishing as well as it understands its core businesses of search and advertising, or even its ancillary tools for communication and collaboration.

Worse, Knol shares with Google Book Search the problem of being both indexed by Google and hosted by Google. This presents inherent conflicts in the ranking of content, as well as disincentives for content creators to control the environment in which their content is published. This necessarily disadvantages competing search engines, but more importantly eliminates the ability for content creators to innovate in the area of content presentation or enhancement. Anything that is written in Knol cannot be presented any better than the best thing in Knol.

Conclusion

An awareness of the fact that Google has never displayed an ability to create the best tools for sharing knowledge would reveal that it is hubris for Google to think they should be a definitive source for hosting that knowledge. If the desire is to increase knowledge sharing, and the methods of compensation that Google controls include traffic/attention and money/advertising, then a more effective system than Knol would be to algorithmically determine the most valuable and well-presented sources of knowledge, identify the identity of authorites using the same journalistic techniques that the Google News team will have to learn, and then reward those sources with increased traffic, attention and/or monetary compensation.

A Footnote: There are many, often similar but sometimes conflicting, definitions of the idea of "Theory of Mind". Though imperfect, an explanation closest to the one I'm referring to here can be found in this essay. I'm very open to criticism that I'm being inaccurate or overly broad here, but I'm more interested in opinions, analysis, or experiences with Google as an organization.

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