Google Turns Borg: Time to Rein in the Search Giant

Remember when Microsoft was the company feared for trying to dominate the computing world? That risk has passed, but a new one -- with Google in the role of the bad Borg -- is taking its place.

Microsoft's "ownership" of the desktop operating system and its attempt to own the Internet via Internet Explorer was a terrible detriment to innovation and competition in the tech marketplace -- so it was struck down, first by the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust actions and more recently by users as they adopt alternative technologies in the cloud and in mobile devices. It's hard to argue that an unfettered Microsoft, free to strangle the Internet in its cradle by jamming Internet Explorer down everyone's throat, would have been a good thing.

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Today, the desktop operating system as we knew it is no longer the centerpiece of computing. That's not to say it isn't important, but technology has moved on. At the moment, nothing has really taken its place; the tech world is multipolar, with products from Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and -- perhaps most important -- Google determining how billions of people related to the digital world.

If anything sets the tone for both desktop and mobile computing today, it's search, and there of course is where Google has no real rival. (Sorry Bing, you've yet to move to the major leagues.) The combination of search and advertising is the Windows of today. Search dominates our experience of the Web, while advertising dominates the business model of the Web. That's not a new thought, of course, but Google's planned foray into the online travel business, not a sector I'd normally care about, brings new concerns about the search giant's effect on competition to the fore. Coincidentally, the E.U. shares that concern and is already investigating.

In July, Google reached an agreement to buy ITA Software, a maker of air-travel information applications, but the $700 million deal is awaiting U.S. federal regulatory approval. The acquisition was the subject of a rather critical editorial in the New York Times, a piece that provoked conversation around the Web, some of it pretty interesting.

Greg Sterling over at Search Engine Land critiqued the Times for not just coming out and saying what he thinks the paper really means: block the deal. So I'll say it: Block the deal, and take a hard look at Google's effect on competition.

When Microsoft ruled the earth
In case you weren't around in the 1980s, let me remind you of how Microsoft used to act.

Every now and then, Bill Gates would look around and notice a technology, generally one owned by a small company, and decide it should be part of DOS -- and later, Windows. Microsoft would then add a feature like disk compression or file management to the operating system and give it away. That spelled the end of lots of small competitors and a certain amount of innovation.

Gates later realized that the Internet was the next big thing, so Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer with Windows. That, of course, is what prompted the Department of Justice to sue the company and eventually force it to unbundle IE. It's worth remembering that Microsoft swore up and down that pulling IE from Windows wasn't possible without wrecking the OS. Monopolists always come up with self-serving rationales to convince the world that what they're up to is the way things have to be. Usually they'll tell you that their domination of the marketplace is good for everyone.

Google should be stopped before it gets too strong
Just as Microsoft's power wasn't good for us, neither is Google's growing stature, and Google would do just fine if it were reined in. Indeed, a bit more focus might be helpful. Witness the Nexus One fiasco. Google had no clue how to operate in the mobile market, and it flat out embarrassed itself, probably wasting a good deal of money and time with a poorly thought-out initiative. The Nexus One was hardly an isolated incident. Google TV and Google Wave are similar fiascos by a company trying to do everything but not very well. In fact, the company tripped all over itself for much of 2010.

We're lucky that Google has been so inept, as that has kept it from dominating even more businesses -- so far. At some point, Google could succeed in its new endeavors. Allowing Google to play Microsoft and gradually dominate an expanding ring of related businesses would be bad for Internet users everywhere.

Like it or not, advertising is the lifeblood of the Web. If Google owns ITA, whose software is used by many large travel sites, I'd expect search rankings for competitors such as Kayak and Orbitz to suffer. That means less consumer choice in the short run and the greater loss of innovation due to the much higher bar it would set for any new company to enter the market.

As the Times pointed out, look at what happened to MapQuest when Google entered that business: It tanked, in part because Google started putting its own maps on top in response to queries about locations.

The same logic applies to other markets, including those we may care about more than online travel. Wireless location services, when teamed with search and advertising, are opening the door to innovative new business models. If Google makes another more successful run at the wireless market, what happens to competition in that arena?

Google, like Microsoft before it, needs to be reined in. It will still be a great company, and it will be free to innovate and beat the heck out of its competition -- but that beating will take place on the proverbial level playing field.

This is my last post of the year. Thanks to all of you for reading and taking the trouble to set me straight with your comments and emails when I needed it. See you in 2011. Happy New Year!

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "It's time to rein in Google -- before it assimilates all Web business," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com.

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