For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And while the backlash that has greeted Google's ( GOOG) sentimental approach to business overshoots Newtonian rationality, it might have been avoided altogether had the company better grasped its own expanding universe. Google has begun to emerge in the technology press recently as a successor to IBM ( IBM) and Microsoft ( MSFT), an industry-dominating bully that's shaping -- and maybe squashing -- the next decade or so, at least, of innovation. This is misleading. Google isn't exactly squashing innovation, as nearly everyone will admit Microsoft did during its glory years (everyone but Microsoft, that is). So far, Google has spurred innovation, forcing its competitors to stay nimble to match or beat its every new feature -- witness Yahoo! ( YHOO) and Microsoft's work on video and book searches -- and helping the more ingenious content creators push their own creativity to the fore of the Web. In moving from the Age of Microsoft to the Age of Google, the creation of technology has changed dramatically -- and in a way many investors don't quite grasp. If information technology in the 1980s and 1990s resembled a herd of sheep mindlessly controlled by a few quick and intelligent dogs, the industry today -- in particular the evolution of the Web -- resembles a Tour de France race where cyclists are racing to surpass a quick and intelligent leader. Nor is Google proprietary about its technology. And there's plenty of evidence for this. It has opted for open formats,
as it did with Google Talk, an instant messaging software that allows users to interface with other IM clients, be they from Time Warner's ( TWX) AOL, Yahoo or MSN. What's more, it has shown far more tolerance for open standards than Microsoft and Oracle ( ORCL). Of all the complaints lodged against Google in the past year, few have involved charges that the company is bullying people into a second-rate technology. Google may desperately want you to download its toolbar, but it's willing to wait until you feel it's necessary.
It has filed for a lot of patents, but it hasn't enforced them nearly as much as other companies. Google has sent out its share of cease-and-desist letters, but most of these are attempts to control access to the information that Google has under its control -- such as scraping Google News feeds or collecting data on Orkut users -- not the technology that allows access to that information. And therein lies the source of Google's bad vibes. Google isn't proprietary about its technology, but it is about its information. It offers a blogging software, but it won't let its own employees blog about Google. It will aggregate personal information about you, but it has often lashed out at anyone disclosing information about Google -- how much money a user makes from AdWords, say, or the results of a Google search on its CEO's name. When such virulent secrecy isn't alienating, it's puzzling. What does a company so passionately devoted to information have to gain from withholding it? Of course, no company would gain from baring its every last detail to the world, but if Google is serious about enabling collaborative innovation with open-standards technology, it could further more innovation by sharing even just a bit more insight into upcoming projects or even a more coherent vision. Every tiny glimpse into Google's next move -- it wants to make San Francisco wireless, it is buying up dark fiber, its Google Base project may herald a move into classifieds -- triggers a typhoon of speculation that, if anything, hurts Google by adding to its misleading reputation as a menacing bully. Offering even a broad sketch of such plans in development would encourage thousands of programmers and content creators to help it achieve its vision. Instead, Google simply offers the same old stale bread: It will organize the world's information over the next 300 years -- a vision so absurdly broad as to be itself meaningless. True, it's still early on in the Google story. But someday, people may look back and see the seeds of the company's downfall in its irrational secrecy. After all, embracing open standards is a double-edged tool: Since you're not forcing your proprietary technology down everyone's throats, people want to work with you. But you also leave yourself open to attack from an even smarter rival. Let's say that such a rival starts small, like Google did, and lures the smartest talent to create technology every bit as innovative as Google's. Now let's say it reached out to the community and shared its own information as openly as it did its technology. Would it beat Google? If it could be the true anti-bully, it would have a very good shot.