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The Google Question

Posted Tuesday, November 15th, 2011 Tagged:

While Google is a giant in the technology world, a company praised for innovation and worshiped by techies for their approach and workplace, one might wonder how the juggernaut will be hailed in coming years.  Businesses go through life-cycles so this is not earth shattering.  See the story of Apple or IBM.  The question is whether Google’s appointed moment at the crossroads is right around the corner.

Google has been attractive to technology proponents as an organization that embraces and perpetuates the ideologies of open-source and offering free applications. Professionals have envied their corporate culture that emphasizes informality, fun, innovation, and creativity. What Google has produced and offered is, without a doubt, game-changing to the point where they have steadily emerged as a major sculptor of our technology culture and have watched their corporate name morph into a common verb used by most of us: Want to know more about the company? Just google it.  Their popular search engine paved the way for other embraced applications such as Google Maps, Google Earth, Gmail, and Google Docs. They have continued to make gains and offer new services, so why do I believe the company is nearing a time when tough decisions must be made in order to maintain their stature?

This past week, John Sutter penned an article for CNN outlining Google’s failed iOS app which resulted in the company pulling the product and posting a quick apology on Twitter.  He cautions that Google’s image may suffer by such mistakes. Furthermore, despite the playlist of innovations that highlight their resume, Google has also landed some duds; applications that failed to generate buzz and were less than impressive. Think Google + which has yet to extract a mass exodus of faithful Facebook followers, Google Wave, Google TV, and Google Health.  Sutter, quoting MG Siegler of TechCrunch, adds, “They [Google] release something, and I no longer have any faith that it’s going to be any good. It’s hard to get excited about a company like that. It’s the same reason why it’s hard to get excited when Microsoft and Yahoo release new things. The track record just isn’t there any more. The faith is gone.” For the common consumer, I believe Siegler’s feelings resonate.

While Google’s approach to corporate culture has shifted paradigms, and their strategy for rolling out new applications by way of beta testing is common in the software world, the company as a whole may be under greater scrutiny as their popularity expands to discerning consumers with traditional expectations.  One of those expectations is a product that seems to “just work.”  Unlike technophiles, common customers do not understand, nor are they appeased by experiments and testing, and software applications with the potential to operate in a buggy fashion are viewed as “broken” rather than a work in progress. Google’s recent iOS app failures will earn a critical eye. From a consumer standpoint, it calls into question their integrity, warranted or not.  Do they know what they are doing? Will they continue to deploy technology lemons?

I believe common consumers also wonder what the company is really about.  So many ventures. So many ideas.

Is Google a software developer? A social networking company? A think-tank that thrives on creative ideas? A search engine company? An internet advertising agency? Or an organization with a vision for  creating operating systems for phones and computers?

At this point in time, the answer to all those questions is, “Yes.”  But I wonder if a company with such  broad interests is sustainable?  At some point, all ventures should connect the dots to a central vision and mission.  Maybe this is what Google desires, to be broad and not easily pigeon-holed. Time will tell whether it is a wise business strategy.  From the outside it feels more like throwing ideas at a wall and hoping they stick while rushing new services out the door before they have been completely tested and polished.

I can think of no other time that consumers have had such power, much of that attributed to social media where people can quickly let their endorsements and criticisms be shared with spheres of influence.  Can and will Google understand the momentum their customer base harnesses?  And will they be willing to structure the organization to the end of meeting and exceeding customer expectations whether or not those values mesh with their central vision?

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10 Reasons “The Social Network” Matters

Posted Wednesday, March 16th, 2011 Tagged:

This past weekend I made the jump. Through the magic of Netflix, I had The Social Network delivered to my door like a hot pizza on a lazy Friday night so that I could consider the buzz and hype for myself.  I had resisted watching it up to that point. After all, how good could a movie be about a website that consumes, or at least occupies the lives of over 500 million users (facebook.com, 2011)?  Can all the elements of “poking”, “liking”, Farmville, and status updates combine to produce a film worthy of a Best Picture nod by the Academy?

Settled on the sofa with a Dr. Pepper and some Girl Scout cookies (Samoans win the award for “Best Cookie Ever”), I was quickly drawn in.  I use Facebook daily and the story unfolding on the screen grabbed my attention with its quick pace and backstory of the mega-company’s humble beginnings in a Harvard dorm room. Mark Zuckerberg’s character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, was amusing with his snarky attitude and brutally honest quips fired off at friend and foe devoid of any tact. And as the credits rolled, I found myself satisfied, entertained, and my interest piqued to investigate the story further.

Did this cinematic endeavor deserve an Oscar nomination for the coveted category of filmmakers? That is a debate to be hashed out in the octagon by film critics and Hollywood. And just like every other movie inspired by real-life events, we know it was polished and embellished with the true story residing somewhere between this big-screen version, and Zuckerberg’s ho-hum, self-loathing demeanor. I do not intend to dive into these questions and the artistic merits of the motion picture within this post, but I do believe “The Social Network” is important and should be viewed.

The most enjoyable movies for me have been those that invaded my thinking space the next day beckoning me to contemplate the story, or pour over the questions raised. No Country for Old Men by the Cohen Brothers was one such film, as was Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. Each project had a unique touchpoint. “The Social Network” was similar.

Long after the final scene I was hitting the rewind button in my gray matter. But it was not the performances, the musical score, the cinematography, or great existential questions that struck me about this film. At the end of the day, it was a pretty good movie, though nothing spectacular. It didn’t expose any great injustices, nor did it share the story of great valor or bravery. Yet it is an important motion picture and I want to offer ten reasons why I think this film deserves a viewing. It is a story that lives in our neighborhoods and one we interact with each day.

1. Disruptive Technology

With over 500 million users, Facebook is a juggernaut tool that has been changing the landscape of our culture since its inception. It is one of the formidable disruptive technologies (that is another article) to emerge in the past decade, one that has affected pop culture, relationships, employment, politics, religion, education, and business. Understanding the history of Facebook and the foundations of the company can help us identify and contemplate the next disruptive technology that might permeate our lives.

2. Business Ethics

It stirs the pot of business ethics. While we can agree that the movie may shade the details and nudge the story in certain directions, we do know that the lawsuits levied against Zuckerberg actually happened (Los Angeles Times, 2011). Great questions are posed: What is right and wrong? When does the issue at hand just become a matter of opinion, or tactfulness? And this doesn’t even begin to address the fact that Zuckerberg’s groundwork for Facebook included hacking into Harvard’s computer network to gather student pictures (Kaplan, 2003).

3. Business Partnerships

Business partnerships are a central theme in this flick. In an emerging world of embraced freelance and where entrepreneurship is endeared, this movie should trigger some interesting conversations concerning the value of verbal agreements, contracts in writing, incorporation versus sole proprietorship or partnerships, terms for mediation, and overall business plans.

4. Intellectual Rights

This film also broaches the subject of intellectual rights.  One of the lawsuits handed down to Zuckerberg is by two Harvard classmates that had recruited him to work on a social website. They allege idea theft once Facebook goes live. A central question evolves pertinent to today’s explosion of innovative ideas: With so many people working to solve real-world problems or address perceived needs, what are the parameters of intellectual property?

5. University Involvement

In the context of school projects that lead to business realities, this movie skims the question of when colleges and universities step in to mediate in cases of disagreements over stolen ideas or works. On the coattails of intellectual rights, it seems cloudy on whether digital or ideological theft violates honor codes and lifestyle statements, thus prompting administrators to get involved. Additionally, as business incubators expand it begs the question of who owns the initiatives and proposals developed in the arena of education. Does the school have a stake in a million dollar idea? Should non-disclosure agreements be used in any real-life scenario lab? Or do institutions release students to the wind, on their own to draft any protective contracts?

6. Business Networking

The power of networking catapulted Facebook into the limelight where it attracted users like flies to a picnic.  Peter Thiel (PayPal co-founder) was an early investor and Sean Parker (Napster co-founder) became the first Facebook president after a period of informally advising Zuckerberg and business partner, Eduardo Saverin. This story illustrates how savvy networking and who you know can unlock a good idea and expose it for nurturing and cultivation.

7. Political Impact

While not directly dealt with in the movie, the full political impact of Facebook has probably not been witnessed. We come to understand from the film that the purpose of Facebook was to allow its users to connect, communicate, and share. In recent years, American politicians have effectively used the site to communicate their views, organize rallies, and strategically empower online street teams to get their policies and views before the voters. Recently we witnessed the power of the site to bring about significant change as Egyptian protesters utilized the service to plan rallies and make their views known.

8. Privacy

The pre-cursor to Facebook was Zuckerberg’s Facemash website that allowed users to rank classmates based on attractiveness. Zuckerberg came under fire and appeared before Harvard administrators after posting the pictures without permission (Kaplan, 2003). Privacy has continued to be an issue for Facebook and will certainly be a dominant topic as more of our personal lives go online. This is certain to be one of the most relevant issues in the years to come as people utilize social networks and cloud services.  Financial institutions, lawyers, and politicians will undoubtedly be scrambling to keep up with the changing landscape. Is anyone nervous about trusting personal information to a company founded by a practicing hacker?

9. Relationships

Facebook re-defines the word “friend.” In the social network world this title is attributed to any acquaintance and even strangers that you might connect with on the site. Are digital friendships really friendship?  Do our relationships suffer as physical interactions dissipate?  And how much is too much? In the movie, Zuckerberg said Facebook would always be evolving, just like technology. How much more technology can we absorb into our lives without disrupting the balance of living?

10. Business Models

While the training wheels were still on, Facebook was an exclusive service reserved for a select group of colleges and universities.  As popularity grew, they began to expand until the buzz had preceded availability and everyone wanted in. This is an interesting model to be studied. Did it succeed because it moved from exclusive to available and people wanted in? Is it a techno-fad? Was it because Facebook’s support and growth matched the proportions of their user base? Or was it simply because it was a great idea that met the needs and wants of its users at just the right time in history?

 

Works Cited

facebook.com. (2011, March 7). Statistics. Retrieved March 7, 2011, from facebook.com: http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics#!/press/info.php?statistics

Kaplan, K. A. (2003, November Wednesday, November 19). Facemash Creator Survives Ad Board. Retrieved March Tuesday, March 8, 2011, from The Harvard Crimson: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2003/11/19/facemash-creator-survives-ad-board-the/

Los Angeles Times. (2011, February 28). Zuckerber’s former classmates press on with suit against Facebook. Retrieved March 7, 2011, from www.kansascity.com: http://www.kansascity.com/2011/02/28/2687423/zuckerbergs-former-classmates.html

Yin, S. (2011, February 9). Despite Lawsuit, Winklevoss Twins Tell CNN They Are Active Facebook Users. Retrieved March 7, 2011, from pcmag.com: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2379896,00.asp

 

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