— THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE

I’LL NEVER TURN TO THE DARK SIDE. (AKA HOW GOOGLE LOOKS MORE LIKE THE DEATH STAR THAN EVER).


Image from Stéfan’s Flickr

2010 has started with a bang for the worlds biggest search engine. Firstly, on Sunday, at the most watched Superbowl in history, Google paid $5 million to screen it’s 60 second ‘Parisian Love’ ad. Probably one of the best of the Superbowl ads, it’s simplicity showed the power and scope of Google’s search engine business. It was significant in other ways too. It was the first time Google had ever advertised it’s search engine. This was pounced on by commentators, bloggers and Google watchers as an admission of the pressures Google find’s itself under from Facebook in one corner and the emerging Microsoft Bing search engine.

Events this week have in fact revealed the opposite to be true. Yes, the facts remain Google has lost some market share to it’s rivals, but like any huge global corporation, Google’s not just got it’s finger firmly inserted in one pie, it’s sticky fingers are everywhere, and just like the after the opening credits of Star Wars have rolled, Google’s advancement into almost every single area of your web experience starts to look alot more like the Star Destroyer looming into view.

Why the Star Wars analogy? Well, apart from the fact it’s quite cool, it’s also quite apt. Google increasingly resembles less the plucky Rebel Alliance, fighting to overthrow a the bloated titans of the dark side, and more like the Galactic Empire itself, all shiny white stormtrooper with bad aim but a big old Death Star to back it up, wiping out smaller worlds that come into its path.

Lets’ take a look at the two other announcements that Google dropped last week. First up; Buzz. Buzz is Google’s foray into social networking, (and bad naming strategy) its goal? To challenge the real time power of Twitter (but still linking into it) and the social networking ubiquity of Facebook. On Buzz, you can do all the things that these two giants do, but somehow not the same. The key difference, and the highly touted lead in PR line was that Buzz unlike Facebook and Twitter which grew as much by word of mouth primarily,  has the added advantage that it is built into the Gmail network. Current user base; 176 million active accounts. This provides a stunning pop up platform to build Buzz through. It’s partial success would almost certainly dwarf Twitter in number of users and get close enough to Facebook’s 400 million users to make it a genuine threat. In classic Google style, this gigantic challenge to their rivals all hosted through the Google network,  is presented in a style that would make Cheech And Chong blush. A languid, Silicon Valley upbeat style that is sleepily disarming, relentlessly positive and more importantly totally glossing over it’s deficiancies.

Following Buzz the next day was Google’s announcement via Mashable that it was intending to get into the (albeit limited) ISP business. Trailing a super fast ISP network for between 500 and 500,000 US residents. The big selling point here is speed, Goggle ostensibly wants to provide a fast network to see what developers can do with it and pioneer the next generations of apps and programs that as the (strangely weird voiceover guy) says; “allowing applications that would be impossible today” this is like sticking a Bugatti Veyron next to a Volvo,  with Google boasting that it could conceivably get speeds of up to 1 Gigabyte off its network.  While this is still in RFI, it’s a massive development for Google taking them into a totally new arena and gives them a significant advantage not only on the web but with the physical internet itself. It is the final piece of the puzzle for Google to penetrate every single orifice of your online world.

If you take a minute to think about it, they are already pretty much there in one way or another.

Want to find a cheap online store? Google it. Want to know where the pub is? Google Map it. Want to map a route from London to Lisbon? Google Earth it. Email someone? Gmail it. Get blogging? Blogger. Check the hits on your blog? Google Analytics it. Browse the web? Chrome. Buy a phone? Check the Nexus One. Want to watch a documentary? Google Videos. Write a letter? Google Docs.

I’m not even including the Android OS system that is in a number of the most popular smart phones around, the damp squib of Google Wave, as well as the much hyped launch of the Chrome OS system later on in the year.

So we have the makings of a virtual monopoly, something not seen since Mircosoft’s attempted dominance of the Web in the 1990’s with it’s brutal Internet Explorer throwdown. The only barriers to this seem to be a potent mixture of hype and hubris. Take the example of Google Wave. Touted throughout last year as everything from the  ’email killer’ to the second coming of Christ (possibly) an in-depth launch film from 2009 whetted many peoples appetite for a truly revolutionary application. Even though if you admitted it, you didn’t quite get it.

Its (relative) failure so far to find any traction among users is as much of problem of the technology not living up to the promise and the hype (sound familiar iPad watchers?) but also a failure from Google to manage expectations of the Wave concept itself. Caught up in it’s own omnipotent bubble, Google actively courted this ‘wave’ of hype. The hunt for invites started to resemble more the geeks equivalent of finding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.

The clamor for Wave invites and the subsequent disappointment shows that hubris is a huge danger for Google. Microsoft, although still a hugely profitable and innovative company, has spent decade’s trying to overcome it’s stigma as a company that is arrogant and ruthless. Poor software releases have damaged it’s reputation and only with the recent launch of Windows 7 have more people seemingly softened their stance on Microsoft and it’s products. Buzz could suffer the same fate if it is felt that it’s ill conceived and pointless. (Already Gizmodo has spotted serious flaws in Buzz) UPDATE: The Guardian and New York Times have damming pieces on the launch (and effects) of Buzz. Both great reads.

Microsoft found to it’s cost, that trying to control access can have hugely detrimental consequences, combine that with poorly executed launches which is both what Wave and Buzz are and you have bubbling recipe for resentment and suspicion. This botched land grab also flies in the face of the most basic ethos of the internet. A point brilliantly  illustrated in the BBC documentary ‘The Virtual Revolution’ the web, adapts and mutates, it is in essence ‘unconquerable’

‘Don’t be evil’ is a lovely mantra. It’s inspiring, and promises much. But each time Google shuts down a blog, (whatever your opinion on music blogging) or launches a product without thinking twice about the privacy implications, or builds a network closed off, or uses data in more and more intrusive ways because the more doors it closes, the closer it will move to being the Internet’s equivalent of the Dark Side, with it’s own fully operational Death Star in tow.

(This post also appears on Dave.biz)

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