Google is evil. That’s the thrust of a bunch of articles whizzing around the web. But has the biggest name in tech got a newly mean streak, or is the bloggosphere missing the point? Gizmodo claims Google’s relegation of search in favour of its other business properties could mark its downfall.
Ex-Googler James Whittaker says the Big G just isn’t the same since it became obsessed with Social. But for all the Google-bashing, there’s something they’re missing…
According to Gizmodo’s article, Google “desperately wants to be able to answer real world questions,” but can’t get access to the information it needs, since it’s all locked up inside Facebook and Twitter.
“Picture this scenario,” says Giz’s Mat Honan. “You are about to leave San Francisco to drive to Lake Tahoe for a weekend of skiing, so you fire up your Android handset and ask it ‘what’s the best restaurant between here and Lake Tahoe?’”
It’s a tricky question because of the subjective nature of a ‘correct’ answer. Google needs to know the sorts of food you like, who you’re dining with, and any allergies you might have, not just the route you’re taking.
“The Internet is the world’s greatest collection of knowledge, but increasingly, that wisdom lives in walled off apps. It lives in services and platforms,” says Honan, who argues that it’s the difference between wisdom and knowledge that’s really tripping Google up.
But just because Google can’t get its hands on that information, it doesn’t mean it’s not trying.
The future of search
Last week I saw Vint Cerf give a speech in central London. One of the so-called ‘fathers of the internet,’ poured blood, sweat and tears into the world wide web’s early versions, and continues to do so. His current role is within Google, as a Vice President and ‘internet evangelist’. He goes from talk to talk, explaining his work and peppering in references to Google as he goes along. But when he does so, he reveals elements of Google’s future plans, and they don’t hint at a problem at all, or an evil outlook.
Instead, they seem to line up perfectly with the idea of an intelligent, intimate tool that knows your tastes inside out. If we’re reading between Vint’s carefully-scripted lines correctly, Google is dead. Long live Google.
Whereas Honan suggests that Google’s got a big problem in not being able to index real-time information from the likes of Twitter and Facebook, Cerf skirts around it, revealing Google’s way out of that particular painted corner as he goes. The answer? Siri-style intelligence that is friendly, and helpful, and to which you have no qualms about giving your personal information. All of your information.
“We may discover that our world is changed by bringing computers into the same environment that we’re in,” says Cerf. “So they can see what we’re seeing. So that when we ask the question ‘What is that building?’ it is a meaningful question, because the computer is seeing the same building as we are. We don’t really get to do that in a very convenient way now.”
A more intelligent solution
Cerf thinks that today’s option of taking out your mobile to “take a picture and say ‘What is that?’” isn’t quick or intuitive enough. Although he didn’t mention it by name, you could see that he meant the same is true of having to hold a button down to use Siri. But Google is obviously working on something far cleverer for the near future:
“As time goes on, the devices that we use to interact with the system will be more and more natural to interact with. The idea is that devices become a partner in our natural human interaction, as opposed to having to type something in, or to have to press a button to get something’s attention, [is key].”
He’s got a point. Siri uses natural language to worm its way into your life. When you first start using it to send messages, Siri doesn’t know who the people you care about are. You ask it to text your wife, and it’ll demand that you clarify who that is. Siri, like Google, can’t look online for that sort of information, because it’s locked away behind the big blue gates of Facebook. But it still gets that information, because you offer it up.
We’ve no problem in handing over that sort of information if we think it’ll save us time and help us out in future. That, combined with a heightened sense of awareness, is what Cerf wants to move towards.
A partner, not a tool
Suddenly, Google’s obsession with social seems to make more sense. “The idea that computers can be part of our gestural and spoken environment could change our view of the partnership that we have with this kind of computing,” he says.
“We know that computers can do some things a lot better than we can. We can do things better than they do. Why don’t we find a way of bringing those two things together?
Instead of having to type a search query into Google search, for example, not only do I want to speak, but I literally want to have a conversation about what it is I’m trying to do.”
Cerf wants “the computer to weigh in and help with that – to help me find the answers I’m looking for – as opposed to having to repeatedly type in more and more refined and carefully adjusted searches. I want a partner. I don’t just want a tool. And I think we’re getting closer and closer to the possibilities of that happening.”
And that, whether Google will admit it or not, is how the company is going to adapt to stay relevant. Not through bartering deals with Facebook, Twitter or whoever’s got your information, but by cosying on up to you, infiltrating your social circle, and having you hand over everything it needs to know yourself. Already fallen in love with Siri? Google’s already working on something more intimate… And not at all evil.