The Google Safari Thing

This week presented us with another ridiculous story in the ongoing technology wars between Google, Apple, and everyone else.  In case you haven’t seen this news story, here are some handy links: BBC,Wired, and then there’s this twist from PC World.

While in isolation, this story is merely annoying, it serves as a useful illustration of the techno-battle that’s unfolding around us. I’d like to paint a picture of that battle for you. But first, I’ll need to outline what I suspect was actually going on.

I think it happened like this.  Apple came up with yet another clever idea. They put cookie blocking technology into their browser that conveniently hamstrings other peoples’ web service software. This means that people like Google and Facebook can only deliver a second-rate user experience on Apple’s browser. That’s awesome for Apple, because the user experience they want to deliver, that competes with those services, isn’t dependent on their browser in the same way.

At the same time, because the browser feature is ‘blocking cookies’ and ‘protecting user privacy’, the companies trying to deliver those services aren’t going to complain. This is also great for Apple, because their competitors get thrown in the stocks and pelted with fruit if they so much as open their mouths.

So Google and Facebook find a sneaky way around the cookie-blocking software. They don’t tell people what they’re doing, because what they most want the technology for is to tune the ads that customers see, which, let’s face it, isn’t a very popular reason.

Then the inevitable happens: somebody notices. Google is caught with its trousers round its ankles. (So is Facebook, but that’s happened so many times that nobody cares any more.) Microsoft predictably jumps up and joins in the finger pointing after Apple has tapped them on the shoulder, filled them in, and patiently explained the joke to them a couple of times.

What should have happened instead was this: Google should have pointed out what Apple were doing at the start. They should have given the user a choice, and told them why tuned ads are preferable (namely they’re less annoying, and allow them to continue to get services for free). Then they should have trusted the consumers to continue to use their services and taken the risk.

Instead they chickened out. No surprise that Facebook didn’t say a word. That’s their style. Nobody expects them to play nice anyway. But Google were stupid because they’ve set themselves up as the shiny grinning Mormon of technology-land, and altogether nicer-than thou, which makes it dirt-simple for people to point the finger at them.

What’s lame about this situation is that it’s another example of business as usual as these companies claw and scratch at each other to become the dominant hegemonic shitweasel in the pack. What’s interesting about it is that we can see, in miniature, the respective characters of four of the major players.

Apple: Sly and ahead of the curve.
Microsoft: Behind the curve and struggling to emulate the younger kids.
Facebook: Crooked as they come, but nobody cares any more.
Google: Trying to remain nicer-than-thou while resorting to the same dodgy tactics as everyone else.

Here, to make things very clear, is a little strategy guide of what I see as going on:

Apple’s strategy:
* Leverage a lock-in ecosystem to actively cripple any and all competition.
* Use fanboy-lust and sly positioning to make other people look dirtier than themselves.
* Help Microsoft, because whatever they do will be awful, and that will make Apple continue to look like the nice shiny option.
Your visual aid: A dewy-eyed cheerleader with a prison-issue shiv hidden in her Hello Kitty backpack.

Microsoft’s strategy:
* Secure enough financial support to enable strong-arm tactics to work even while market-share dwindles.
* Try to secretly position themselves as partners with Facebook using loud stage-whispers while hoping nobody notices.
* Use patents, licensing, and court-cases to achieve what their software isn’t good enough to do, namely retain their position in the market.
Your visual aid: Half-blind hunchback with a big stick and a face like fire-damaged lego.

Facebook’s strategy:
* Leverage a lock-in website to actively cripple any and all competition.
* Help Microsoft in order to cheaply secure the support of a flailing company.
* Sell-out their own users in order to maintain the market dominance and hope they don’t notice.
Your visual aid: A sleazy teen with a ‘you can’t tell me what to do, Grandad’ smile and a pocket full of cut-price ecstasy he made in his own garage.

Google’s strategy:
* Give up on being nice because it looks like it’s losing money.
* Give up on being objective and data-driven because it looks like it’s losing money.
* Belatedly try to invent a lock-in ecosystem because that’s what seems to be working for other people.
Your visual aid: A Mormon missionary fumbling with the catch on an automatic while not noticing that it’s pointed at his foot.

So who do I think is going to win? Well, unless he gets his act together and works out what he’s good at, the Mormon is probably toast. The hunchback will eventually hit himself on the head with his own stick. The sleazy teen is growing up quick and will soon find it a lot harder to sell his funny pills. The only one among them with any brains is the cheerleader. On the other hand, the cheerleader’s appeal is largely based on having someone else to compare herself to. I wouldn’t be surprised if the winner will be the one player who didn’t even appear in this story. Can you guess who that is? Here’s a hint: they sell everything.

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