Does Google Have What It Takes To Be A Platform, Rather Than A Product, Company?

from the the-challenge-is-(still)-on dept

Nearly seven years ago, I wrote about the idea that there was a “battle to own the internet,” and that if Google really wanted to succeed, it had to move away from just being a product company to being a true platform company that had a much more open setup, which did much more to encourage developers to build on top of it. Over the years, occasionally I’ve repeated that point. And while Google has done a few things at the margin, it still has always seemed to resist becoming a true platform. There are, certainly, some folks inside Google who get this, and I seem to hear from a bunch of them any time I bring this up. But the company has a history of having trouble really opening up to outside developers.

So it’s really interesting to see this “internal” note from Google employee Steve Yegge, that he accidentally posted publicly via Google+. It’s a very detailed and honest criticism of the company’s attitude on certain things, but not done to slam Google, but rather to push Google to change. It’s getting tons of attention, and Yegge removed the post, but has allowed others to keep up a reposted version. He’s also pointed out that Google PR was careful not to pressure him to take down the post, noting that employees are free to express their opinions.

Some have been reading it as an insider’s “attack” on Google, but I don’t see that at all. It seems like a call to action from someone who thinks the company is missing the boat on being a platform. Yegge spends a lot of time talking (very openly) about his prior experience working at Amazon, and about how Jeff Bezos got the “we need to be a platform” religion big time nearly a decade ago, and effectively forced the entire company to focus on that as job number one. While Yegge criticizes many problems with Amazon, he does recognize that such a vision has put Amazon in a good position (along with others who have clearly embraced being “the” platform: Facebook, Apple and, almost by accident, Microsoft).

The key part of the post, which is what many people are focusing on, is where Yegge criticizes Google+, and how it wasn’t designed as a platform, whereas its main direct competitor, Facebook, has clearly embraced being a platform in a very meaningful way.

Google+ is a prime example of our complete failure to understand platforms from the very highest levels of executive leadership (hi Larry, Sergey, Eric, Vic, howdy howdy) down to the very lowest leaf workers (hey yo). We all don’t get it. The Golden Rule of platforms is that you Eat Your Own Dogfood. The Google+ platform is a pathetic afterthought. We had no API at all at launch, and last I checked, we had one measly API call. One of the team members marched in and told me about it when they launched, and I asked: “So is it the Stalker API?” She got all glum and said “Yeah.” I mean, I was joking, but no… the only API call we offer is to get someone’s stream. So I guess the joke was on me.

Microsoft has known about the Dogfood rule for at least twenty years. It’s been part of their culture for a whole generation now. You don’t eat People Food and give your developers Dog Food. Doing that is simply robbing your long-term platform value for short-term successes. Platforms are all about long-term thinking.

Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that’s not why they are successful. 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. Some people spend all their time on Mafia Wars. Some spend all their time on Farmville. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of different high-quality time sinks available, so there’s something there for everyone.

Our Google+ team took a look at the aftermarket and said: “Gosh, it looks like we need some games. Let’s go contract someone to, um, write some games for us.” Do you begin to see how incredibly wrong that thinking is now? The problem is that we are trying to predict what people want and deliver it for them.

This part rings incredibly true. I know that when Google+ launched, I liked it as a program, but asked people about APIs, because it needed to better integrate into my workflow — and was told that that would be coming “sometime later.” And while I still mess around with Goolge+, it’s largely become an afterthought to me, because it just lives off in its own separate world, rather than integrating well. There are still features I like, but until developers have a chance to dive in and make it useful… it just doesn’t feel like a necessity.

But there’s a bigger lesson in this, beyond Google’s continued platform-itis. And it goes back to the issue of cargo cult copying — a topic I’ve discussed a number of times. People seem to think it’s easy for companies (especially big companies) to “copy” products of their competitors. In fact, with Google, many people think it’s so easy that there are antitrust investigations going on. But Google+ and the points that Yegge raise remind us, yet again, that while copying the basic “features” of a product may be possible, really recreating what makes it tick and what makes it successful is difficult.

It’s easy to copy the superficial. It’s difficult to copy the soul.

With Google+, the company built a really nice copy (with some clear improvements) of Facebook, the product — which is the superficial, public-facing part. But it completely missed the boat on Facebook, the platform — which is the real soul of what makes Facebook such a powerhouse. Google certainly can get there. And, in the back of my mind, I’d always assumed that was exactly the path they were on. But remembering that post from 2004, and the lack of any sustained, involved effort within and across Google to be a platform, combined with this post from Yegge, again makes me wonder if Google just doesn’t recognize the importance of being a platform.

I’ve argued in the past that one big achilles heel for Google is its awful reputation when it comes to customer service, but it’s lack of deeply ingrained platform-focused thinking may represent a much bigger threat.

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Companies: amazon, apple, facebook, google

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Comments on “Does Google Have What It Takes To Be A Platform, Rather Than A Product, Company?”

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Cody Jackson (profile) says:


I noticed this a while back, when I wanted to incorporate the “Send to” feature of Google Reader with Google+. In the settings, there are many different social media sites available, except Google+. Sure, you can attempt to configure it manually, but it’s a Google product. I shouldn’t have to.

If Google can’t even get it’s own products communicating with each other, its relevance in the world will decline. Sure, Gmail is awesome and I use Google Reader every day, but other companies will pass them by.

Google can make great products, but the company seems to forget that we live in an interconnected age now. Like Sun used to advertise, “The network is the computer.” If Google’s products can’t communicate with each other, and they don’t provide the tools for others to do the work for them, then Google fails. Now is the time to start looking for the next Google.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think people should look at the word “platform” and see it as “root directory” where all other folders spawn from, that is a very good place to be. The root, if you are the root everybody needs you, everybody pays you and Google certainly knows how to create a natural monopoly, they have the potential to become the next Apple.

Even hardware makers are realizing that they can benefit from being a platform that is why others are oppening up their manufacturing plants to third parties like the fabless chip manufacturers that depend on Intel, IBM and others to churn out microprocessors.

A Guy (profile) says:

Google does search well. Other than that, I find their services lacking. I don’t really like Gmail’s interface, I don’t know why, I just don’t. Google docs is inferior to MS Office and Libre Office, though as a file sharing platform it’s not too bad.

If Google released a good set of API’s I could change Gmail’s interface to be more pleasing and others could start integrating more convenient office features into Google Docs.

Android does show real promise. Maybe that is a good incubator for developing a more platform oriented service.

RcCypher (profile) says:

I agree with Mike. I use Google products every day. Google+ has become my major social network platform, but that is more due to my disgust with FB, and the fact that G+ has no advertising for me to deal with.

I use other Google products every day though. I have a gmail account, I use the chat client, I have an android phone, I use Google docs (sometimes), I use Google maps and GPS on my phone to guide me every day when I am at work. I use iGoogle to filter the majority of my news, hell that’s how I get updates for techdirt.

But there are ALOT of issues with these services that bother me. Data is not truely mobile in the Google sphere. My phone contacts are not integrated into my G+ account, I can’t use my google docs without a stable internet connection (which isn’t usually an issue, but when it I don’t have that connection its a BIG issue) which has prevented me from using it full time. I use Chrome, but its not really synced with my Google data. I don’t have my G+ notification on my iGoogle page, and I can’t customize the menu bar on the top and get rid of the few services I don’t use or have no need for.
The lack of API’s and ability to truly customize the services available to me is very frustrating at times and while I am a huge supporter of Google as a company I have to admit that they have left the average Joe wanting more than they are giving in many respects.
Having said that I can also understand that many of these products and services were developed as personal projects, and because of that they lack the finish, and general inter-connectivity that would make the products in and of themselves powerhouses.

I do wonder, if part of the reason why those tools and API’s are not available is because of the fear of Antitrust litigation. The potential for security threats, and privacy issues that many of those same use friendly API’s would create.

Nick says:

Something Deeper?

Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work…Our Google+ team took a look at the aftermarket and said: “Gosh, it looks like we need some games. Let’s go contract someone to, um, write some games for us.”

While I’m sure it’s more of a management issue here (engineers and all), I can’t help but draw a parallel to instances where copyright owners try to lock down their control. In a way, maybe, not focusing on a robust API and inviting developers (i.e. remixers), and relying on licensed third parties, one could say they are guilty of trying to maintain too much control despite the fact that widespread use would prove a long term benefit (even if Google doesn’t directly benefit, but does because of the increased attention/use/utility). You know, the whole “free is not the end of the world if it creates value elsewhere” idea.

Is it laziness, or is some ingrained fear of opening things up to the masses without knowing how things will turn out? That’s the basic idea with copyright maximalism: show me the money now or get lost, I’m not putting my stuff out there so you can make money off all my hard work. After all, Google strikes me as concerned with maintaining a level of consistency with all its products that a robust API might make things difficult, even though it might be a good idea.

Anonymous Coward says:

“that while copying the basic “features” of a product may be possible, really recreating what makes it tick and what makes it successful is difficult. “

Mike, the thing you miss the most in all of this is that Google has the money, the staff, the equipment, and the time to fail over and over again in almost every market. It shouldn’t be shocking to consider that some of those failures may cause damage to the marketplace, even if they can’t pull it off properly.

The true danger of Google isn’t success – it’s expensive failures that drag everyone else down with them.

TimothyAWiseman (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Damaging a marketplace throuh competition is quite difficult. Competition will generally only improve a marketplace by forcing all competitors to improve, or if done very poorly will have no effect on the market at all.

There are a couple of exceptions, but they are pretty well. A company could fail so spectacularly that it makes consumers turn away from an entire class of products or forces the government to bring in heavy handed regulation. But that generally involves some sort of catastrophic failure in safety and goes far beyond competin poorly.

Alternatively, a company could attempt to drive competitors out of business through anti-competitive means such as tying or dramtically subsidizing one product with with revenue from other products specifically to drive another company out of the market. But we already have ways of dealing with that scenario under the law.

Matthew (profile) says:

The biggest problem with Google+

The platform stuff is all very high-level and important, but the biggest problem with Google+ is that all the casual u
sers are still on Facebook.

They don’t want to learn a new system, even if it is a better one (debatable). So you can be on Google+ and only interact with other early adopters or you can be on Facebook and communicate with practically everyone. In the short game, Facebook seems to be succeeding at maintaining its market share by making it hard for people to switch and because Google didn’t make it easy enough to interconnect. Time after time Facebook enrages its users, but they (we) show that anger by posting a status update about it and then continuing to use the service. The alternative is cutting off a significant avenue of socialization.

This will probably fail in the long run, but the question is whether Google can get its high-level platform shit figured out in time to take advantage of the eventual diaspora or whether it will be some other players.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m not entirely convinced that the “rant” (his words) was posted publicly by mistake…

Yegge says he has been with the company for six years, and it sounds like for at least the past 2-3 he has been on the “Google as a platform” soapbox. He acknowledges that some other engineers get it [and that many other don’t], but more crucially none in management get it. It almost has the feel of a high risk / high reward attempt to make sure management gets the message.

If the message were posted only within the Google circle, do you think it would have had the same impact? By spreading this “internal” message to the greater internets he is forcing the company to respond.

All that said – I do agree with his message, and I think Google should certainly take notice. But I would not be surprised if the “accidental” posting was no accident.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The working definition of management that I use is “A method to achieve goals by getting things done through other people”. There is nothing in that definition that suggests direction, so one is free to manage in all directions, up, down and/or sideways. While down seems the most likely direction, the actual process for sideways and up is exactly the same, though a bit more political.

I believe that the public posting may very well have been accidental, though I can also see where once the accident took place, the ‘political’ nature became apparent.

In order to ‘win’ some of my ‘up’ battles, upper managements’ understanding had to come from a third party. That made my job to get the third party to deliver the correct information.

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