People often ask me, “What is your problem with Google? In part, Google is the 800 pound gorilla right now, so when I critique the industry, I am almost invariably critiquing Google. But, it is more than that.

But first, let me tell you what I like about Google. Great corporate culture. Heavily investment in research and new ideas. Great revenue stream. Are they really pulling advertising money away from television? Just amazing.

On the other hand, I would argue that Google does not provide appropriate leadership and vision; and the leadership that it does provide is misguided and dangerous – perhaps naive would be a good word to use.

What is the long-term impact of their products and initiatives – what is going to be their legacy? Google sponsors projects such as the $100 Laptop Project with almost no consideration of the potential social impact. But, any anthropologist could tell you that it is probably a bad idea (1). The Google Library Project was an attempt to put the world’s literature online, often without consent and payment to authors and publishers. Yet, Google justified its actions, arguing that it was ok because they were doing a great service to mankind.

And YouTube’s revenue is primarily based on stolen content. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has argued that YouTube has not substantially profited from pirated material, and secondly, that they have taken down copyright material upon request. Schmidt explains that under the Digital Millennium Act, there is a shared responsibility between victim and the thief: It is the victims responsibility to catch the thief. And the thief is responsible is merely to stop stealing when caught.

Is this evaluation uncharitable? Let’s take a closer look. YouTube is, in effect, an online television station. And like other television stations, YouTube makes its money on advertising, and a lot of it. When YouTube uses another television stations programming and collects advertising dollars, the other station looses advertising revenue and Google gains the advertising revenue. It is just like transferring money out of one bank account into another. But, this is, according to YouTube is ok, because they promise to stop if they get caught. Google’s activities hardly seem consistent with its mantra, “Do no evil.”

One can hardly fault Google for buying YouTube. Yet, Google’s lack of leadership in almost every area is disappointing. Companies like Google are not really building “the Virtual World,” they are just along for the ride. They grab hold of the latest trends, YouTube, for instance, and bring it into the fold. That is, social trends and revenue models are dictating the direction of technological development, not innovative companies that have a vision of a better world. And this in unfortunate.

What will be the long-term impact of Google’s initiatives and products? What will be its legacy? This is an issue that I will discuss in the coming months, as we look at some of the emerging online trends, paradigms, and problems.

msc - July 2008