Is Google Turning Into Big Brother?

While we're transfixed by the presidential election, in the world of high tech another duel between two well-funded, take-no-quarter candidates has just emerged … and in the long run the impact on our daily lives may be nearly as great -- and perhaps even sinister.

As you probably heard, on Monday -- that is, on a national holiday, when business announcements are almost never made -- Google rolled out Chrome, its new Web browser.

Why the odd timing? Hard to say. Google surely knows that just about anything it does these days is going to cause a news frenzy -- and especially when it's announcing its first thrust into a huge new market.

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So, perhaps it hoped to temper this coverage to a degree, and drag it out for several days. Or perhaps Google was unsure about the product itself, and didn't want to overhype it -- and then face a potential backlash. Or, maybe Google just didn't think Chrome was that important, saw a window between the two political conventions and rushed it out.

Google's official explanation is that the Labor Day release of Chrome was an accident, and the Terms of Use attached to that product were simply a cut-and-paste from other Google products. We will leave it to the reader to decide if these are viable explanations from a multi-billion company regarding one of its biggest new products in years -- and, if true, what it says about Google's competence in handling some of your most sensitive information.

Well, now that Chrome is out and being field-tested by reviewers, I think we can rule out the second and the third scenarios. That leaves the first. But why would a company that knows it has a solid and newsworthy product on its hands intentionally dampen media coverage of it?

The answer, I think, was that it was a long-term strategic decision to make Chrome look almost like an afterthought. And I think that decision was made at the highest levels of Google, perhaps by CEO Eric Schmidt.

Why? Because Google's ambitions are bigger than most of us have ever imagined, and the company is now rich enough, and powerful enough, to execute them -- even if it means the short-term sacrifice of a major new revenue source.

One more thing: If Google pulls off this strategy, it will be the most valuable company on the planet. It will also be the scariest … and we should start worrying about that right now.

First, a little background. Google sits at the confluence of two historic Silicon Valley philosophical streams.

One, which comes from Sergey Brinn and Larry Page, the two founders, reaches back all of the way to the early days of computing and continues forward through the world of gamers, hackers, Apple and the Web 2.0 generation. It is essentially utopian in its belief that technology -- especially the Web -- will bring about a better world (hence, Google's "Don't Be Evil" motto).

It also has absolutist (some would even say totalitarian) tendencies, in that it also believes that the empiricism of science and technology supersedes messy human institutions. It is proudly amoral, which is why it can celebrate hackers -- or for that matter, Steve Jobs -- as heroes, as long as they remain innovators.

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