Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Google draws more criticism

The announcement that Google was no longer going to actively develop its collaborative tool Google Wave any further drew a great deal of media attention in the last week. Many have taken great pleasure in referring to the platform as a failure. It is the latest in a series of stories pouring criticism over the search giant. But is the criticism, of what is arguably one of the most inventive and biggest companies of all time, warranted?

For those who don't use Google services, the demise of Wave will mean little. Even those who do use Google's search engine and their GMail service may not have heard of Wave. But whether or not people use Google products it cannot be argued that the company has not changed the world and generated a vast amount of wealth, not only for themselves, but for many others.

Google's rise

The very word 'Google', drawn from googol meaning 10 to the 100th power, has become common diction. How many times have you heard the phrase "just Google it." Few would suggest you "Bing it", "Yahoo it" or even "Ask Jeeves". But Google has gone beyond search. Innovation and a strive for perfection has foisted dozens of products on the public. Though some still retain Hotmail and Yahoo email accounts, Google's GMail service has attracted millions with its simplicity and functionality. It also provides its users with the biggest amount of free storage space, currently standing at 7.4 Gb. Hotmail now provides 5 Gb and Yahoo claim to offer unlimited storage though it was Google that forced their hand [Comparison of webmail providers].

It was Microsoft's Bill Gates that once envisaged the idea of cloud computing. But it it Google that have embraced and perfected it. Google account holders not only send email, but can store details in Google Calendar, compose and share spread sheets in Google Docs, upload pictures to Picasa Web and share video on Google's YouTube.

Google made blogging popular after offering a free service via Blogger. While it was not the first others have come and gone. Typepad and Wordpress remain popular but others have been killed off. The once popular and first major major blogging service, Geocities was unceremoniously shut down by Yahoo last year which angered many people as it consigned much history to the digital furnace.

The search giant has also change the way people find their way around. There were mapping services before Google. Microsoft released a program called Autoroute and in 2007 they bought Multimap.com which later became Bing Maps. But it is Google that revolutionised mapping on computers and the web. Launched in 2005 Google Maps has continually improved with added features. Directions, bus and transport information as well as satellite information has made Google Maps indispensable for many people.

Google Earth which also launched in 2005 has further enhanced people's virtual experience of travelling the globe. It has also helped emergency services by enabling layers of information of fire hydrants and allowed environmental groups to broadcast their message by enabling the showing of information about rising global temperatures. In fact without Google, we might still be using paper maps.

Rising criticism

Of course none of these innovations have come without scrutiny or criticism. StreetView has drawn a mountain of criticism over issues of privacy especially after it was revealed the company had inadvertently captured WiFi data. The fact the data captured was relatively innocuous, and something that anyone with a WiFi enabled laptop or mobile can capture, has not stopped the litigations.

The European parliament has raised the loudest objections and put what Google has called unworkable restrictions on its Street View service. The company has said they may not map Europe again with photos for its Street View service if European Union data-protection regulators reduce the images' storage time from 12 months to 6. Under current rules the images may only remain on the site for a total of 6 months and would require Google's cars to continually navigate European roads to keep the service working.

"I think we would consider whether we want to drive through Europe again, because it would make the expense so draining," Michael Jones, Google's chief technology advocate and founder of Google Earth, said in an interview at the Cebit Technology Fair in Hanover in March. Google has negotiated with EU authorities, agreeing to one year storage from the day the images are published on Street View, according to Jones. Shorter periods won't be possible as Google can't reprocess its data quicker because of software restraints, he said.

"I think that privacy is more important than technology but for privacy people it is only about privacy but for us it is also about technology," Jones said. "We have to be actually able to do what they want us to do. What we want is to have enough time." [Business Week]

Google Street View has been banned temporarily from taking photos in Austria due to privacy concerns, although the Romanian company NORC already features Austrian cities in a similar product. In Germany authorities are said to have finally relented to allow Street View to go live [AP]. But meanwhile in South Korea, Google's offices were raided over privacy concerns surrounding it's project. In a statement released by the Korean National Police Agency (KNPA), they said, "[We] have been investigating Google Korea on suspicion of unauthorised collection and storage of data on unspecified Internet users from wi-fi networks." [BBC]

Net Neutrality has become the latest bone of contention after Google announced it had been in talks with mobile telecoms provider Verizon over how internet traffic should be prioritised. In a blogpost Google have said while there should be neutrality on the web, such rules should not necessarily apply to mobile networks.

Over the last week, rumours have circulated that Google and Verizon were on the verge of a commercial deal that might, for instance, have allowed YouTube video priority over other traffic. However the proposals revealed that no such commercial deal has been done. Critics, however, said that the companies planned to exempt wireless internet, which they have themselves previously said will form the future basis on the majority of innovative services, and that there was an exemption for so-called "differentiated services". In the blogpost, Alan Davidson, Google director of public policy and Tom Tauke, Verizon executive vice president of public affairs, policy, and communications, said that Verizon and Google had discussed a principled compromise concerning the thorny issue of "network neutrality." Nothing has yet been finalised but the debate has raised temperatures [FT / Telegraph].

Rising above the criticism

No company is perfect, and Google is no exception. It claims it has made mistakes and looks at its failures as something from which it can learn to make things better. Google has acquired dozens of start-up companies over the years. These have been augmented and turned into viable products [List of Google acquisitions].

In 2009 Google made only five major purchases, On2, a video codec technology company, reCAPTCHA a company specialising in optical character recognition, the VOIP client Gizmo5, the online advertising company Teracent and the collaborative realtime editor AppJet. This year the list may grow as the company expands and pushes into other areas. Wave may flutter away in its current form, but many of the tools it developed may well be incorporated in future products or even in GMail itself. Some publications have taken much delight in poking Google over the demise of Wave [Telegraph / Techcrunch].

But this is not a company that is likely to fail any time soon. Google's main source of income is after all something many rarely think about at all when they think of the world's favourite search engine; AdWords. It has made Google rich, but it has also made the smallest of companies richer. In fact in 2009 Google said in a blog posted in May that the effects of its search and advertising businesses helped generate an estimated $54 billion in economic value for the United States. With Android coming into its own and a Google pad in the offing the most powerful technology company in the world is not going to disappear [CNBC / CNBC video 'Inside the mind of Google'].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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