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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  1. icon
    Cody Jackson (profile), 13 Oct 2011 @ 4:30pm

    Fail

    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.

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