Google and The Web 2.0 Monoculture

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Doc Searls points out our growing dependency on Google. In brief, he equates Google with a kind of free public utility that provides the following functionality:

  • Maps/Satellite data
  • Search
  • Mobile phones (via Android)

To that list, I would add the following features on which many people and companies have come to depend:

  • Advertising (via AdWords)
  • Ad-based venue (via AdSense)
  • Email and Instant Messaging (via Gmail)
  • Voice Mail/Phone routing (via Talk)
  • New aggregation (via News)

Searls, with a “me too” from Dave Winer, declaim that Google has become “too big to fail.” They worry that Google, fattened and dependent on its advertising engine, is vulnerable to economic bubbles in advertising. They worry that Google is in a bubble right now.

I do not think this is the case. Google no doubt enjoys quite a bit of revenue from advertising right now. However, no one outside of Google has a complete accounting of the company’s revenue. If Google survived the recessions of 2001-2003 and 2008-2010, there is good reason to believe that they will weather future economic storms.

However, Doc Searls points to a more immediate danger that Google presents to consumers: that of the digital monoculture. Google rarely extracts money from users directly. There are only a handful of subscription services offered by them. However, the user base for Gmail is enormous. The same can be said for their advertising services. What would our online life be like if Google went offline tomorrow?

Just looking at one service, Gmail, is illustrative of the scope of the problem. Many companies have outsourced their mail handling to entirely to Google. Recall that in the 1990’s, IT staffs spent a considerable amount of time and money setting up corporate email systems. Although the largest companies still do this, many simply outsource this tasks and reap significant savings and reliability over in-house mail systems. Without Google, a very large number of companies and people would not be able to conduct business. Sure, there would be work-arounds: alternate email accounts, telephones, etc. However, this distruption would cost real and measurable dollars.

Perhaps the most immediate effect would be the loss of Google’s wonderful, if easily forgotten, search function. To remind those readers recently recovered from a coma, the current neologism for searching online for something is “googling.” Imagine the sort of a day you would have if your browser returned a 404 missing page error when accessing http://www.google.com/. That would not be a salad day at all.

The open source community, of which both Searls and Winer are associated, has longed battled against digital monocultures (e.g. IBM, Microsoft, Apple, etc.). Consumers usually benefit from choice (although not always [remember the mess of the home computer market in the 1980s]). Healthy competition promotes innovation and cost-savings. It also creates a healthier ecosystem in which the failure of one entity does not threaten the survival of everyone.

To this end, consumers of free digital products ought to consider how much they depend on these services. I practice what I preach. I pay for Yahoo Mail Plus, which is $20 a year. It’s a fair deal: I see no ads and I can use POP mail. That’s pretty short money for a service that has yet to have a outage more than 5 minutes in three years. The same goes for my blog hosted on bluehost.com. For $7 a month, I get shell access to very reasonable Linux environment. Of course, there are plenty of free choices for blog hosting these days, but I need to control my content and the context in which it appears. Free services can close shop without notice and there is little consumers can do to retrieve their content.

The dangers of monoculture become readily apparent after a failure. In groups, humans are not noted for their ability to successfully anticipate future disasters. It seems that now, we don’t even recall past calamities all that well. One would think that the near fatal collapse of traditional lending institutions who participated in rank speculation would produce a rapid and perhaps onerous regulatory response. However, that has not yet proven to be the case nearly two years after the shock.

From a strictly selfish perspective, I would love to see Google fail completely tomorrow. Business opportunities abound in chaos and fortune favors the bold.

UPDATE: It looks like no one at Yale reads my blog.