Why I Left Google Redux

Google is worse than I thought four years ago. And its sickness may well be fatal.

I left Google. I then exercised my freedom of speech and blogged about it. The post went viral. Now 4 years later it still resurfaces as a topic of conversation. I’m no less surprised now as I was then but I am also no less inclined to join the conversation since, after all, I started it.

As many astute readers note, mine wasn’t a rant about a big company because I joined a bigger one in Microsoft. It also wasn’t about any grievance I had with my employment. Google treated me well and I reciprocated by fulfilling my role on a number of important products and being an effective proponent of Google’s developer story. We were a thing. James and Google. Jamoogle? Goojames? Doesn’t quite have the ring of Brangelina or Trumpence, but still, a thing.

Come on, I can’t be the only one who has a once-cherished affair in his past. Let those one-and-done souls cast the first stone. The rest of you can read on and reflect on the doubts that have occasionally caused you to change course.

As is the case with many fractured relationships, it began with an awakening of sorts; a realization that behind the free food, do-no-evil blather and the smoke-and-mirrors glitter was lurking something that was at odds with my core value system. Google wasn’t just not “the one,” they were flawed to the point that I had to ask myself just what I was thinking ever consummating the relationship in the first place. I had been duped by the glitter into working for a company that nearly single-handedly shifted the economy of computing from value to advertising. You didn’t have to be good to get noticed in the Google ecosystem. You didn’t even have to provide a single iota of actual value. You certainly didn’t have to build something people wanted so much they would part with their money to get it. All you had to do was buy your way to page 1. Value and relevance could be trumped in favor of cold, hard cash. Money provided a short cut that only the rich could take.

All those free services Google was doling out were drawing huge crowds and being funded by taxing the businesses who coveted those crowds. Gather the masses and control access to them. Exact tolls that allow the noisy to drown out the useful, the wealthy to overwhelm the insightful. Provide a system that allows one brand to hijack another’s simply because they are willing to pay more for placement. Obscure this pay-to-play by gradually blurring the distinction between advertisements and actual links and what you have is a system rigged in favor of the wealthy. Google took the promise of the internet’s level playing field and ransomed it to the rich.

Google was in the middle of every transaction, deciding who got heard and who got ignored. A system where the well-funded got more attention than the well-qualified. The already rich had advantage over the simply good. Our politicians may debate what to do about worsening wealth and income inequality but its cause is clear: when companies like Google advantage those who pay over those who do … there can be little debate over why the rich are getting richer and the rest of the world is having trouble getting noticed. Being on page one is a major advantage and money is the quickest way to claim that advantage. The internet as a great leveler will have to wait until someone else’s watch.

I am not blind to the fact that Microsoft has followed Google’s lead in choosing ads as the monetization model for their own search engine Bing. I cannot and will not defend a business model (not even to keep my job) that allows the wealthy to use nothing more than said wealth to win. However, the fact remains that Microsoft is a company that makes the vast majority of its income by providing products that people are actually willing to pay for. Microsoft has a choice of how it monetizes its innovation and largely chooses value. Windows, the most popular operating system in the world, is sold based on its value and no one can pay to place an app on page 1 of its marketplace. Contributors understand that it is value and value alone that determines placement.

Google, on the other hand, has backed itself into an everything-is-free corner. Can Google ever expect consumers to pay for any of their products given this history of free? If Google somehow invents the future, we’re all going to have to watch a video ad before they take us there. And once there, we’re going to have to pause from our work every time Google decides it needs to pay a few bills. Is this a future any of us want?

But before I get to that future, let’s go back to Google+, the target of my original ire. History has shown my take to be pretty accurate. As a product it was one big-ass don’t care, an epic embarrassment for Google. Perhaps in hindsight we might have realized that old, rich dudes (the brains behind Google+) don’t know a damn thing about social. All their wealth provides a barrier between those old dudes and the real world that prevents them from understanding how the real world, of which social is now a big part, actually works. Perhaps products targeted at social-savvy people should actually be conceived by social-savvy people. That’s how you get Snapchat which stands as proof that innovation in social is possible. Google+ didn’t fail because the world didn’t need another social network. It failed because Google didn’t understand social.

But if you stop your analysis there, you aren’t giving the old rich guys enough credit. They didn’t take ownership of this planet by being stupid. You see their money may shield them from the real world, but the world of money they know very well. And within that world, G+ was one huge success. The product brought a lot of attention to Google’s services. It created an initial buzz and demand that got people to login to their account. Admit it. I bet you are logged into your Gmail account right now. Before G+, Google knew you only from the machine and browser you employed. Now they know exactly who you are and can track you across the web and across their services. Google+ trained users to login and stay logged in. Chalk one up for the old rich guys. We all fell into the trap. Thanks to G+, Google knows more about you than ever and guess what they are doing with that knowledge? That’s right, using it to advantage advertisers. The wealthy have, even in failure, enriched the wealthy.

That is neither the world I want nor a business model I can champion. I want to work for a company whose business model advantages the useful. I want a business environment that rewards the innovative. I want an economy based on the ability to create value rather than the means to buy popularity.

I want that. I think everything from Brexit to the popularity of anti-establishment politicians like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump prove a whole bunch of us want it too. Do any of us really expect Google to deliver it?

And with that attitude I can’t rationalize any other employer than the one I have. Microsoft isn’t without its history. It isn’t without its blemishes. But as a technology company it isn’t about selling to the 1%. It isn’t about empowering advertisers above everyone else. As a business Microsoft makes money through its partners meaning we make money only when others make money. As a technology company Microsoft is essentially the union of its competitors making it a powerful force for forging the future. It’s products and services subsume the offerings of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon (sans Walmart compete). As such, it is humanity’s best chance at a level playing field.

Do I hate Google? Absolutely not. I cannot preach value without recognizing a company when they provide it. I use Gmail and Chrome. I trust Google Maps. I respect Android’s fight against Apple’s elitism. When Google’s products provide value, I gravitate to them because of that value. It’s their business model I hate.

But the real danger to Google isn’t my ire. Google’s cluelessness with G+ is a harbinger of their future. As they bob around in their big, bureaucratic bowl of alphabet soup, they are losing sight of the changing face of consumers. A new generation is coming and their value system is polar opposite from the greed represented by Google. The vanguard of Gen Z is now college age and along with their kindred Millennial spirits they are rejecting the old-rich-guy way of life and rewriting the rules of education, business and social consciousness. They are autodidacts and prefer owning less and sharing more. They cherish living small and communalizing assets. They couch surf and Uber. They Airbnb and shun the big brands. They take only what they need and gravitate toward simple pleasures. They are turning their back on the kind of greed that made Google and lining up in historic numbers behind the greater good represented by people like Bernie Sanders. When Google loses the next generation, their position as the multiplier of Boomer and Xer wealth will mean their permanent irrelevance.

Google’s primary hope is in taking stock of their products and services and understanding that there are better ways to enrich themselves and their shareholders than selling relevance to the highest bidder. I would be the first to congratulate them if they suddenly woke up and discovered that within their own ecosystem are buyers and sellers that can be directly connected through value rather than their ability to market clicks. Indeed, they might implement something similar to my suggestion to Twitter about monetizing the value inherent in their ecosystem instead of being lazy and slapping ads on everything. But until then, count me tired of the commercials, tired of the uneven playing field and appalled at the growing wealth divide that they exacerbate.

Google has proved it is capable of building great products. Surely they are capable of providing value that people, not just advertisers, are actually willing to pay for. Until then I fight the good fight alongside my home team in Redmond, Washington.

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