The subtlety of (don’t be) evil

The subtlety of (don’t be) evil: considering Google's ambitions
[A blog post I wrote for Medium, but never published, after Google IO]

In the aftermath of Google’s annual IO conference that ended with an impassioned speech by Larry Page pleading with the tech industry to stop fighting and start focusing on making the world better, it’s worth revisiting Google historic Don’t Be Evil mantra. The irony was not lost on anyone when, at the same time Larry Page was preaching unity, Google lawyers were requesting that Microsoft pull their recently launched YouTube app from the Windows Phone Store.

Here is why I believe in Google, why I buy into their mission: more often than not, Google’s work helps make the world better. Whether its breaking new ground with products no one ever thought of, or entering competitive industries that already have clear leaders, its typically doing so to significantly benefit us all by starting massive leaps forward.

Oftentimes critics label Google’s ambitions in productivity (i.e., Google Docs), web utility (i.e., Chrome), Geography (i.e., Maps), and mobile (i.e., Android) as evil because they were competitive efforts in someone else’s industry. But in each case, Google helped drastically change the market for the better. Microsoft wasn’t innovating with its Office product and clearly had no vision for the era of web connectivity. Firefox had done the hard work of unseating Microsoft’s hold on the browser market, but it took Google’s entry into the industry to ignite the incredible acceleration in web browser speed, standards compatibility and cross-platform sync. Google Maps proved MapQuest was actually a laughable product that was doing a fraction of what mapping was capable of. And while Apple made the biggest contribution to the mobile industry ever by breaking the carrier stranglehold, it needed a foil in Google to expose the value of open platforms. In each instance, Google entering the market has ignited competition that has lead to greater and greater products and services for users.

For me, whether Google is acting evil or not is determined by whether it can really effectively make a difference in a market it enters, not just steal someone’s revenue.

Google isn’t perfect, by any means. While I do believe Google needs a social layer to its products to tie them together, the way Google often forces use of Google+ and restricts connectivity to other social platforms is clearly self serving. When it creates competitive products like Google Music All Access with little innovation that could steal the lunch of other startups, it’s getting greedy. And when it cancels beloved services like Google Reader without considering alternatives like selling the product to another company, it’s irresponsible to its users. Nothing Google does right would keep me from looking down on its infractions. But its track record is filled with many more reasons for us to thank Google than to chastise them.

At this week’s developer conference, Google made another massive contribution to the tech industry by showing the world how valuable personalized data can be for us all. While most of its competitors are running around leveraging user data for self-serving advertising products, Google is finding new ways to unlock the power of personal data to provide magical services to users. After experiencing Google Now on my phone and seeing Google’s new maps and search products, I actually want Google to have more of my data—what other company can I say that about? I’ve started forwarding more information to my Gmail just so Google can digest and leverage it in its products. I wish I could augment Google’s record of me even further by handing it the keys to my data on other valuable platforms like Foursquare and Facebook. I want this because I know every product Google thinks up will be better for me the more they know about me. And their vision of how to use my personalized data is to better my life, not just to sell me to advertisers.

So when Google stands up in front of the world and asks us all to be a little less evil, I respect them because I believe they’re leading by example. I trust and respect them more than most other companies, and believe they’re capable more than most other companies to make a real difference in our lives. They will falter along the way, but as long as they keep doing more good than not, I believe they’re standing by their motto.