In Google We Trust — or Not

Google’s an interesting company. They have one cash cow — their namesake search engine and its ads — that, for the most part, fuels all the rest of their projects. But that hasn’t stopped them from taking on ambitious projects; if anything, it drives their creativity into places few else would date to invest.

So, they set out to do projects that make their April Fools’ jokes seem plausible. They drive cars around practically every part of the inhabited planet to take 360° photos of storefronts and trees and traffic. They build a new browser, then try to take on the giant in Redmond by turning said browser into a laptop OS, and a Mac Mini replacement, and a smart TV killer. They buy out a smartphone OS, and take on Apple directly by giving it away for free (mostly, anyhow). They design self-driving cars (but so far aren’t giving them away). And, now they’re apparently trying to disrupt the mobile OS market they already own with smart glasses. If Apple salutes the crazy ones, they’d certainly have to salute Google.

But now we’re stoping to wonder: is Google crazy, or crazy like a fox — and a rather devious fox at that?

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Profits? Who Needs Profits?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that profit doesn’t matter to Google. After all, they sure seem perfectly willing to let profitless projects sit around forever. I use Google products all day, and rely on them for my job, and yet if it weren’t for the new Chromecast I’d have never given Google a dime. Odds are, most of you are the very same.

But perhaps, Google’s changing a bit. They’re focusing more on the bottom line, it seems, by releasing more paid (if dirt cheap) products like the Nexus 7 and the aforementioned Chromecast. Gmail storage increases have all but stalled, in lieu of paid storage upgrades for Google Drive (that, still, are dirt cheap). And Google Reader, the beloved way most of us subscribed to sites, was recently taken out back and mercilessly shot, thanks to “declined usage” (read: inability to monetize the app).

It’s sensible. Ad revenue can only grow so much when you’re already the top site in the world, so they’ve got to make money from their users in more ways. But it’s been quite the surprise to many of us. The company that used to giveaway downloads of PC software and got us all to switch to their email service with more free storage seems more interested in adding extra ads to Gmail and selling storage addons and perhaps getting us to buy a device. That’s not bad, but it’s not the original geeky Google we’ve all known and loved, the one who put Gmail Experiments in Gmail and made Reader just to make the web nicer.

But then, they’re still generous and geeky. After all, they gave us a social network — one many of us ignore, but one that also includes group videochats for free, where most other companies charge for the same feature. They’re still pushing the state-of-the-art in browsers forward, in open source. And, for that matter, they still contribute to a ton of open source projects.

When You Stop and Wonder…

Somewhere, though, the spark has been lost. We’re skeptical of Google today, and when they launch a free notebook app or relaunch a reviews site, we wonder about their motivation. Are they simply trying to get more of our data, or are they trying to push competitors out of the market?

Perhaps a decade of free stuff has made us jaded, and perhaps being inundated with ads from the same company that’s now also asking us to open our checkbooks just feels odd. Perhaps PRISM allegations have made us more skeptical of the search giant. Perhaps, despite our love of sci-fi, Google’s crossed our own mental Uncanny Valley, making us skeptical of Google Glass’s intrusion of our personal space and privacy. Perhaps we love driving just enough — and distrust machines equally enough — that the idea of driverless cars scares us. We’ll stick with our horseless — and computerless — carriages.

And if the new Google is more worried about profits, how can we trust their new products? They’ve burned early adopters over and over, selling us on Wave and then killing it, and driving nearly every other RSS sync app out of the market and then killing their own RSS sync app. We promoted them for their free email service, and then they took away the free version of Google Apps for your domain — something geeks and early adopters had long relied on. If anything, it’s the more non-geek consumer-facing apps that have lived on, like their practically unknown social network Orkut.

We wonder: what’s next? Will they kill Feedburner? Seems likely enough. How about Blogger? Plausible, considering that they’re pushing everything towards a Google+ only future. How could we possibly trust them to keep a new product up and running when they’ve killed things we’ve relied on?

Using What Works

And yet, we’ll still rely on Google. Why? Because it still works for us. Google Search is still unrivaled, and odds are you use it a dozen times a day. Gmail is still the nicest webmail service, and it still works great with apps today. Docs isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done. Google+ is still the simplest and cheapest way to have group phone calls, and Chrome is still a great browser.

Nothing lasts forever, especially on the internet (well, except for those pesky bits of embarrassing info you’d like to seen taken away, but I degrees). Apps come and go, from tiny startups or giants like Google. At the end of the day, you learn to move on.

I can’t tell you what to do with your private data, other than to remind you that, unfortunately, nothing online is truly ever 100% private. But I can tell you that I still rely on Gmail — via my grandfathered Apps for Domains account — because it works for me. I use Safari by default out of preference for how it works on the Mac, but Chrome is still a great browser. And I can’t wait to get my Chromecast, despite my qualms about Google Glass — and would love to ride in a Google driverless car even if I still love driving. I still love Google’s geeky humor — referencing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the Chromecast model number, among other things — and still expect great thing from them for years to come, despite my disappointments with them.

For the Future

No one’s perfect. The same goes for companies. All we can hope is that our favorite companies will do the very best they can, keep changing the world for the better, and inspire all of us to greatness.

So here’s what I hope for from Google. I want to see them keep making products that surprise us, products that push the status quo forward. I want to see them use their money and influence at the very least to keep innovating, and at the best to make the world a better place. Projects like Google Loon — an ambitious shot at bringing internet to the most impoverished parts of the world in balloons — are a shot at that, but I’d love to see more. I’d love to see them actually take a stand for privacy, even if it meant charging cash for more services. I know that’s a long shot, but it’d sure help restore our post-PRISM faith to a degree.

I know it’s too much to expect. Google owes us nothing, and in a technical sense only exists to produce a profit. I get that. But if billionaires like Elon Musk can take on the adventurous projects that they do, we’d sure hope that Google — and Apple, and other tech giants — could take on even more ambitious projects than making us more likely to tap on ads in Gmail.

We’re all better than that.