Google's Greatest Weakness: An Insider's Perspective
"I was at Amazon for about six and a half years, and now I've been at (NAS: GOOG) for that long. One thing that struck me immediately about the two companies ... is that Amazon does everything wrong, and Google does everything right."
-- Steve Yegge, Google senior engineer
With Big G fresh off a stunning third-quarter success, you might think that's the most important line in Yegge's epic rant about Google, Amazon.com (NAS: AMZN) , Facebook, and Microsoft (NAS: MSFT) , but it's not. Google has one great weakness hidden in its corporate culture. If Yegge's post is any indication, Google's already recognized this shortcoming and might soon overcome it. That's great for Google shareholders, and it could be very dangerous for its competition.
The key differentiators
"There are probably a hundred ... ways you can compare" Google with Amazon, Yegge says, "and Google is superior in all but three of them." Being really good at just two or three things can make or break a company, at least over the short term. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos "realized long before the vast majority of Amazonians that Amazon needs to be a platform," Yegge explains. Amazon's massive cloud infrastructure, and the outgrowth of its business model, came about because of this realization. Without it, Amazon might still be a popular online bookseller with a huge, efficient computer system.
A platform is basically a consistent structure that ties together multiple services in a unified way. This makes it easier for other developers to create layers on top of it, and it makes it easier for users to have a stable experience. Later, Yegge says:
The problem is that [Google is] a product company through and through. ... We don't get Platforms, and we don't get Accessibility. The two are basically the same thing, because platforms solve accessibility. A platform is accessibility.
Android app developers always seem to be complaining about how hard Android is to design for. Despite nearing a 50% smartphone-market share, the Android Market offers less than half the app variety as Apple's (NAS: AAPL) App Store, and both operating systems were released around the same time. If it's less accessible to developers, it becomes less accessible for users.
In spite of the occasional beatings it's taken for maintaining rigid control over iOS, Apple's managed to make its proprietary environment far friendlier to legions of developers. That's platform success. Accessibility can create a virtuous circle, encouraging further adoption and increasing brand loyalty. It's led to huge gains for Apple, which earned two out of every three dollars earned by the entire smartphone industry in the second quarter. Google's returns from Android are -- to put it mildly -- a little harder to quantify.
The challenge of a wired world
The need for intuitive and interoperable platforms rises as the world becomes more technologically interconnected. Yegge understands this and has explained it well. People need accessibility when it comes to technology. There were tablets before the iPad, but they weren't successful because earlier tablets tried to make a complicated interface smaller. After the iPhone's success, the ideal became instead the expansion of an intuitively simple interface designed for small devices. "When software -- or idea-ware for that matter -- fails to be accessible to anyone for any reason," Yegge says, "it is the fault of the software or of the messaging of the idea. It is an Accessibility failure."
The platform is the message
"A product is useless without a platform, or more precisely and accurately," Yegge says, "a platform-less product will always be replaced by an equivalent platform-ized product." Google+ is his primary example. Reports of major traffic declines on Google+ quickly followed an astounding activity spike after the service opened its doors. Google+ was envisioned as the central hub for Google's services, but none of those services was developed on, or integrated into, a platform. It's not accessible enough. I have several friends who signed up for Google+ after the recent Facebook changes, only to throw up their hands in resignation after failing to understand it. Yegge explains why Google+ doesn't (yet) have the same appeal as Facebook: "Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work. So Facebook is different for everyone." Facebook is a platform. Think of it as the Windows of the Internet. Windows would have failed if no one had written great programs to run on top of it.
"The Golden Rule of Platforms, 'Eat Your Own Dogfood'," Yegge writes, "can be rephrased as 'Start with a Platform, and Then Use it for Everything.'" Microsoft knew this because its existence was built on a platform -- first MS-DOS, then Windows. Apple's platform is its ideas as much as its systems, but its systems are designed to run the same way every time. Google is still, at its heart, an advertising company. Being a platform wasn't necessary before, because everything came from one product. Now that it's expanding -- into analytics, business productivity, daily deals, Web browsers, operating systems, and even cell-phone production through its Motorola Mobility (NYS: MMI) purchase -- Google needs a platform. It needs a way to make everything work together. That's the promise of accessibility, and that's what keeps Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon so involved in their users' lives.
The easier it is for people to have a consistent, accessible, and intuitive experience -- whether they're developers, businesses, or consumers -- the more appealing that experience will be, and the more likely they are to adopt more products that continue that experience. A platform makes it possible, and it starts inside the company. Google has a number of amazing products, but it needs one more: a great platform. I think Yegge just gave his bosses a wake-up call.
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At the time this article was published Fool contributorAlex Planesholds no financial stake in any company mentioned here. You can add him onGoogle+-- he doesn't think it's a failed network (yet). The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Apple, and Microsoft.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Amazon.com, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, as well as creating bull call spread positions in Microsoft and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.
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