Manicheanism is once again fashionable in the business press. According to the latest issue of Fortune, Google is simultaneously very good and very evil. One of the one (good) hand, Fortune tells us that Google -- with its gourmet food, onsite doctors, oil changes & car washes, brightly colored furniture, and unlimited sick days -- is the best company in the universe to work for. And on the other (evil) hand, in a section entitled "OH THE HORROR: Stuff that makes us wake up screaming," Fortune suggests that Google is number one scary corporate monster too -- even more nightmarish than Dick Cheney, Vladimir Putin or Tom Cruise:
Sure, Google's Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt, and Larry Page are great to work for. So why do they still scare the bejeezus out of us?
Exactly. So what is it about Google that is so terrifying?
One word -- power. In less than a decade, Google has amassed an unnatural amount of economic, political and cultural power -- more raw power than media goliaths like Time Warner or News Corp have amassed in decades. Their de facto monopoly of the search and online advertising business (over 50% of online advertising revenue is going to Google) has given the young company unnatural power in industries that are fundamentally foreign to its advertising centric business model and its open source, libertarian credo.
Take, for example, the book business. Their Library Project, an attempt to collection the information from many of the world's libraries into a single searchable database, threatens to undermine a three or four hundred year old business model -- the commercial sale of advertising free, printed books. Scary. Very scary. Last Friday, Google put on "Google Unbound" in New York City in an attempt to convince the publishing industry that they are Google of unlimited sick days rather than the Google that outevils even satanic Dick Cheney. As CNET reported:
To anyone who thinks digital content is a threat to the book-publishing market, Google wants to tell you two things: first, you're wrong; second, its Google Book Search product is the solution, not the problem.
So Google schlepped out the Web 2.0 A Team -- Chris Anderson, Tim O'Reilly, Cory Doctorow, Seth Godin et al -- to try to convince New York publishing business that giving away digital books for free is actually good for authors, publishers and readers. Thus, Tim O'Reilly -- sounding like a Google employee -- told everyone that "we as publishers have to become part of the new digital ecosystem that Google is working so hard to build." While Godin buzzed that this new "ecosystem" would be great for authors because it would provide them with readers "attention". And Cory Doctorow argued that free e-books "make commercial sense" because he personally profited from giving away his books for free (the truth being, of course, that no literate soul would ever pay to read anything that digital philistine Doctorow has written).
So what is Google really up to here? They are trying to seduce the book business into unbinding a business model that has worked for five hundred years and embrace the unproven and highly dubious model of free e-books. Why? Because Google Unbound benefits Google. They want to control the world's printed information in the same way that they are successfully controlling online information. And to do this, Google is trying to convince authors that they are best off giving away what they do best for nothing and then trying to eek out a living consulting or speaking.
Still wondering why Google still scares the bejeezus out of us?