Google (GOOG) built its empire on an impressive string of innovations that delighted a huge swath of consumers who in turn attracted advertisers anxious to market their wares to them.
But, as former Google engineering director James Whittaker explained in his widely circulated blog post titled "Why I left Google," much has changed since then -- for the worse.
In his post, Whittaker laments Google's transition from a tech company focused on providing users with quality content to an advertising company focused on mining personal information from its users.
Recent Google news lends credence to Whittaker's critique that users -- the once-beloved masses -- have been consigned by the company to play the role of advertising receptacles. Not only that, but Google's new focus has the company pursuing projects that may actually be harmful to users.
User data across more than 60 of Google's services is now integrated, including Search, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, YouTube, and Google+. The company claims the benefits of this change include:
Increased clarity in privacy policies through consolidation of product-specific privacy policies for each service
Ability to do "cool things" like "provide reminders that you're going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day."
Perhaps, but Google's refusal to let customers opt out makes the user-focused spin questionable.
Google was recently granted a patent for "Advertising Based on Environmental Conditions," which allows smartphones to gather information about the user based on sounds, light, temperature, and air composition and use that information to deliver customized advertisements. According to the official patent application, with this technology, "advertisements for air conditioners can be sent to users located at regions having temperatures above a first threshold, while advertisements for winter overcoats can be sent to users located at regions having temperatures below a second threshold."
As yet, it's unclear if Google has any plans for using this technology, but its increasing interest in data mining suggests that it will take more than privacy concerns to stop it.
Along with WPP (WPPGY), Gannett (GCI), and others, Google recently garnered criticism for exploiting a loophole in Apple's (AAPL) Safari Web browser to track the activities of users who intended to block such attempts. Google responded by saying, "We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled."
Safari is designed to block most tracking, but allows websites to track users who submit a form. Google used this functionality to make Safari think users submitted forms to Google, even when they didn't.
Last year, Google announced its decision to shut down Google Labs -- the source of some of the company's most popular innovations, including Gmail, Google Maps, Google Docs, and Google Reader.
These innovations not only created excitement for users, they also created enthusiasm among employees as they explored new ideas without feeling pressured to produce predetermined outputs.
Google still allows engineers to spend 20% of their time pursuing projects they are passionate about. But it has delivered not-so-subtle clues that innovations related to Google+ and other data-mining projects are more valued. For example, 25% of employee bonuses in 2011 were tied to the success of Google+.
Google's extensive data-collection practices also put its users at risk of identity theft. As evidenced by the recent security breach against Global Payments (GPN), which affected MasterCard (MA), Visa (V), American Express (AXP), and Discover Financial Services (DFS), among others, phishing tactics have become so sophisticated that they can find success in mining data from the most technologically advanced companies.
The mere collection of such detailed data -- especially when Google integrates data about its users from so many different sources into one data set -- can put users at risk by creating an appealing target for phishing scandals.
While Google's new strategy may promote the company's bottom line in the short-term, company leaders seem to forget that Google grew its customer base by offering cool services, respecting its users, and attracting top-notch employees who are passionate about innovation.