Tech Overload

Google as Fat Elvis

February 03, 2011

Multiple Pages
Google as Fat Elvis

Every company—no matter how trendy or cool, no matter how many Goth girls on rollerskates they employ, no matter how many simpering genius autistics in silver pants they have on the payroll—every company eventually reaches the point where it becomes a cubicle Jonestown devoid of anything resembling real-world logic. I refer to this as corporate development’s “Fat Elvis” stage. Google is a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich away from sequined Vegas Elvis.

In the old days, Google’s home page was a paragon of good design: spare, minimalist, and utilitarian. This was in contrast to their main competitor Yahoo!‘s preposterous complexity. I eventually switched my homepage from Yahoo! to Google simply because Google hurt my eyes less. These days, I’m not so sure. When I type things into it, Google’s search page tries to finish my thoughts for me. I’m sorry, Google; despite all the drinking, I’m still smarter than you are. Then when I get my search results, Google annoyingly tries to open little mini-windows as my mouse pointer moves past the links. These “features” serve no real purpose other than to annoy us with how clever Google is at caching data. Creeping featurism has come to Google.

This sort of feature bloat is a phenomenon of all badly designed software projects. Creeping featurism is a sociological defect which has software consequences. Inside most software companies are people called “product managers” who get paid to, well, develop the product (and yes, Web pages can be products). This is an important role when the product is being fleshed out, and it’s important to have someone to blame when the product stops working. When a product is done, the product manager’s role is to make sure it works properly. Unfortunately, product managers like to add features, as they don’t get promotions and raises if they don’t. Therefore, we see useless “fat Elvis” nonsense such as Google’s instant previews and autocomplete.

Then there are former CEO Eric Schmidt’s numerous gaffes. Was he autistic? Was he power-mad? Or was he so used to fawning adoration that he felt like he could say anything he wanted to without consequences? I guess nobody really cares now that he is off cackling to himself and counting his billions, but for the CEO of a company whose motto is “Don’t be evil,” he did a good corporate-villain act. Maybe Schmidt’s Dr. Evil impersonation makes sense in “Fat Elvis” land, but it doesn’t make much sense out here. Perhaps he got into some kind of nerdy chest-beating contest with Bill Gates to see who could be scarier. I declare Schmidt the wiener. While newly christened Google CEO Larry Page may surprise everyone by being a real smoothie, I fail to see how he’s going to be any better. After all, what kind of people skills did it take to select a scary dork such as Schmidt in the first place?

“Destroying other companies or absorbing them into the collective is supposed to be seen as some kind of social good—or even something good for the shareholders.”

Google has a simple approach to business development. If there is an online business somewhere which looks promising, interesting, or nifty, Google will either buy it outright or create a lousy knockoff product, often effectively destroying the competition. What’s weird is that Google doesn’t make any money from these “other businesses”—12 years after their incorporation and six years after their IPO, they still make all their money from selling ads associated with search terms. Sure, they have email, Google Docs, Google Shopping, Blogger, their own programming language, YouTube, mapping software, a coming ripoff of pandora.com’s music service, a photo-sharing service, Orwellian Panopticon and medical-data services, a browser, an ersatz PayPal which nobody uses, a clone of Yahoo!‘s financial service, a cell-phone OS, Orkut (their version of Friendster/Facebook), and lately a Groupon ripoff, but they can’t figure out how to make money from any of these products. They only make money selling ads, same as they always did. Sure, Google has to grow, and it’s hard for them to grow much more in selling ads: They already own a substantial share of the world’s advertising market. For the last 12 years, they have certainly taken over some new markets, but they have failed to monetize any of them.

Imagine if I was CEO of an unregulated electric utility. I make a lot of money selling electricity to my captive audience. So I use my money to buy DVD-player companies, electric-oven companies, and electric-car companies, all ostensibly to drive up demand for my electricity. In the process I ruin the industries who can’t compete with my monopoly, which is giving these things away at below-market costs. Would this be good for human progress? This is what Google wants you and their shareholders to believe. Destroying other companies or absorbing them into the collective is supposed to be seen as some kind of social good—or even something good for the shareholders. If there were any kind of shareholder activism in a company such as Google, this kind of goofing off would not be allowed. But of course, Google’s shareholders are a bunch of hysterical fanboys who don’t understand what “badly managed company” means. If they noticed, they’d have a greater percentage of Google’s head count working on the core business (aka, Search) and they’d have less of the kitchen-sink approach that did Yahoo! so much good.

Is anyone surprised that Google’s employees are jumping ship for Facebook? I’m not. I don’t know why anybody would want to work at Facebook, which appears to be about as retarded as Myspace, Tribe, and Friendster before it, but at least there is the IPO payola. But I’m not sure why anyone would want to work at Google, either. While there are certainly some talented people at Google, there are talented people at General Electric and GETCO as well, and those people use their talents toward a specific business goal which solves problems in the actual world, rather than noodling around with useless nerd absurdities such as Google Wave or Gmail.

A developing scandal is Google’s war on ” content farms,” websites which generate content that people want to view. A content farm is based on the idea that if lots of people want the information, you can serve them an ad and make money for your content. More or less, this is a capitalistic version of Wikipedia. I don’t know how useful “actual” content farms such as eHow are, but when I have a regular-Joe type of question, it’s usually one of these which answers it. I suppose there may be really obnoxious ones out there, but they should be automagically removed from any sane search algorithm already. The thing is, nobody is really sure how the new content-farm algorithm will play out. Will the new algorithm destroy competitor IPOs’ value? Will it ruin Internet treasure cracked.com? Is Alex Jones right that this algorithm change will effectively destroy alternative media’s page rank? Time will tell. The fact that people are actually worrying about this indicates that Google’s power reminds folks of an evil corporation.

Google ritually purifies themselves with the holy water of “open-source” software and nebulous contributions to human knowledge such as scanning all books into their search engine. The funny thing is, I use open-source stuff written by Amazon, Yahoo!, and even unfashionably evil companies such as AT&T and NEC all the time, but I have yet to find a Google open-source project which was actually useful for anything. Microsoft has also digitized many books which it also gives away, and it never gets credit for it. Either way, I don’t buy Google’s holy-Joe act. Google’s acquisitions and R&D work remind me of the wealthy brat in the Richard Pryor/Jackie Gleason vehicle, The Toy. They didn’t need any of these things to make their business better; they just wanted these toys because other people had them. If Google wants to actually do some good in the world (and for their shareholders), it would kill all those 20% time goof-off projects, put those people to work making the search features perform better, and fund an honest R&D lab the way AT&T did back when they had a monopoly over America’s networks. Bell Labs make human life better in countless ways that Google doesn’t. The Amazon and PayPal guys have decided to do just this with their wealth: They’re funding private space exploration. What do we get from Google? We get “Fat Elvis” features such as Google Buzz.

Maybe when Google dies on the toilet while trying to squeeze out a worthwhile software program, we will be nostalgic for the way they once were. Maybe we’ll use Google impersonators for searching. In the meanwhile, here, have some Quaaludes, guys.

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