Like everyone else, I was reading over James Whittaker's blog entry this morning on why he left Google to return to Microsoft. The post comes off a little whiny, but that's the nature of these things; when you feel a little betrayed about something you once believed in, you tend to glorify that storied past and bemoan the benighted present. I've cranked out a few of those myself.
Whittaker points to the surge initiated by Larry Page to compete with Facebook as the source of these ills, and to Google+ as an example of all that is now wrong with the company. That's not the first place I've seen this argument in the past few weeks. Paul Graham makes a similar point, tangentially, in his list of ten ambitious startup ideas. One of those ideas is "start a new search engine." Google, having taken its eye of the search ball and become embroiled in its pointless losing fight with Facebook, is vulnerable in what once was its core strength. And even as the company has narrowed its portfolio to focus on social, I was reminded of how the few remaining product lines still receive short shrift as I look over complaints about Apps, or the horrible changes that have been jammed down onto Gmail and Reader in purported service of this larger social good.
Google has always been two different businesses (in the sense that they actually function as a business; this doesn't include their various digressions and experimentations, even the most popular of which have never had broad adoption or generated significant revenue): internally, as Whittaker points out, they are an ad company, and an extremely successful one; externally, to their users, they are a search company, and they had been extremely successful at that until recently as well. Whittaker attributed this to "good content" but the content isn't, and never has been, Google's... it is generated by the rest of us and Google's particular and appealing genius was to index it and make it accessible, while throwing some unobtrusive ads up alongside it to support the whole experience.
The company has long attempted to break out of the search box in the minds of users, looking for something more sticky and valuable to serve them with, but has made a poor job of it at every turn. What is happening with the Google+ social push is even worse, however. In desperately attempting to shoehorn existing properties into the big Google+ family, the company has diminished, rather than enhanced, their value to users. I can no long frequently recommend Apps as a solution for businesses, for example, because the company is not only divorced from core Apps services as a revenue stream (this was always true and always a moderate risk), but is now visibly desperate to somehow make everything "social" at the expense of core functionality. The "Search Plus Your World" tinkering with search is a frightening and potentially damaging example that could mark the beginning of a steady deterioration in the very business that users turn to the company for.
Graham compares Google's obsession with Facebook over Microsoft's with Google and I think that's apt in most respects. Microsoft saw Google's philosophy of computing services as a threat and made the mistake of thinking that Google itself was the threat, and attempted to mimic them to compete, making a poor job of it. Google seems to be taking the same tack with Facebook. This isn't necessarily to condemn either Microsoft or Google; the philosophies they are up against are existential threats to their existing businesses, and it's always a tough call to find a way to reinvent your business without cannibalizing it. Microsoft, despite several mis-steps, may in fact be doing a better job of this than Google is. One can only hope Google will similarly find a workable solution to their own dilemma.
Unlike Microsoft, however, Google doesn't have the advantage of a massively entrenched product infrastructure that would take decades to supplant. Moving ad dollars and searching eyeballs to a competitor is the work of minutes. If their moves have a whiff of desperation, it's desperation well-earned.