Don’t Mess With The GOOG

A couple of years ago I wrote in this space: “A spectre is haunting Mountain View. No, not bed bugs: bit rot. Google is in serious decline.”

Well, credit where it’s due. These days Google has put its problems behind it and is soaring from strength to strength. Contenders keep coming and trying to claim its crown–and failing. I give you Apple Maps and Facebook’s Graph Search as an example.

I happen to personally know, from mine own checkered history as a software engineer, a couple of the engineers on the Apple Maps team, and let me assure you: those guys are really good. Some of the finest that I’ve ever worked with. But it turns out that maps are actually a fractally hard problem, and that even the most brilliant engineers can’t do much to turn the sow’s ear of wonky data into a silk purse.

Google, though, has spent the last decade or so amassing not just perhaps the greatest collection of software-engineering talent ever assembled, but a gargantuan treasure trove of data. The only company whose data hoard rivals it is perhaps Facebook. Alas, thus far Graph Search is like Facebook’s contextual ads: better than nothing, but still painfully crude. Its problem isn’t just “dirty data“: it’s that it doesn’t (yet) understand context and semantics.

Let me give you an example. From my years living in the UK I’m a big fan of the English soccer team Arsenal. (Brits, and fellow Gooners: don’t hate me for saying “soccer.”) Some time ago I mentioned this to Facebook. So what did it show me in my News Feed last week?

Killer Arsenal

Word match, yes: concept match, no. Barely better than a SQL LIKE query, really.
Now compare that to this Google search:

Killer Arsenal

Context. Nuance. Semantics. Google gets them: Facebook doesn’t. (Yet.)

Of course, not everything they do is pre-eminent. Facebook is better at social. Apple is better at design. But Google has gotten better and better at both. I can’t say I’m surprised by Android’s worldwide domination: I predicted nearly four years ago that “most of the phones of the future will be Androids, not Apples.” But I am surprised by how slick it’s gotten. Google seems to have finally learned, albeit the hard way, the value of design.

Do I sound like a blind fan of all things Google? Let me remind you of that “Google is in serious decline” article. To an extent, though, I suppose I am biased in their favor. But not because I think Android is better than iOS (I think it’s slightly inferior) or because its search engine is so much better than its competitors (although it is; try the search above on Bing.) I don’t really care about those things.

What I care about is that Google has become a machine that turns advertising dollars into fundamentally groundbreaking new projects like Google Glass and self-driving cars. They’re not just trying to make money: they’re trying to use that money on far-fetched moon-shot projects with the chance to be genuinely revolutionary. I admire that.

If only Apple would use some of its gargantuan cash hoard to do the same. If rumours are true, their next big push will be an attempt to revolutionize TV. How…excruciatingly dull and small-minded. Here’s hoping that one day Cupertino takes a page out of Mountain View’s playbook, and starts to think a little bigger.