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Don’t Be Evil?

Adapted from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nottsexminer/7181655884/

My Photo-fu ain’t getting any prettier. (Adapted from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nottsexminer/7181655884/)

It’s one of the best—and best known—corporate mottos of the technology age. Google’s three-word mantra positioned it as something different from the corporate behemoths it disrupted as a scrappy startup. It was also an implicit promise, that as a company it was on the side of the customers it served.

Except, that was years ago, and Google is now one of the biggest of those corporate behemoths. Many of its products may still be loved (just witness the Android/iOS flamewars) but the company itself? The reaction to its recent acquisition of Nest shows that beyond a sense of confusion as to what Google was paying all that much money for, Google itself just isn’t trusted all that much.

Nest is an odd little company in and of itself: founded by Tony Fadell, one of the creators of Apple’s iPod, it looks to bring the same design ethos to neglected home products and add some Internet-era connectivity and device awareness. Nest are one of the leading lights of the “Internet of Things”, so it’s not a surprise that Google has swooped in, but the reaction from technology pundits has been broadly negative.

Why? Well, we tend not to trust those with too great a power over us, and Google’s huge collection of information and ability to leverage it gives it immense power. Nest’s connected devices suggest a desire to extend its awareness of our activities even further into our homes and our every waking moment.

Paranoia? Maybe, but in this case they are watching us. Wasn’t Nest doing the same thing already? It was, but there’s a difference between communicating with devices that form part of our lives, and having those devices communicating with a vast database that already contains details on our lives.

A company like Nest, as with Apple, makes its money by selling products to consumers. A company like Google makes its money by selling advertising and licensing software, both to other companies. As long as there’s a viable alternative, it’s vital for Google to retain the goodwill of consumers, but the fact that their money comes from elsewhere means that they’re always going to be a servant of two masters, and the temptation is to rely on PR to deal with consumer attitudes.

This is not to say that Google, much less the people who work for it, is evil, but the company relegated its famous motto to the backburner a while ago. The pressures of capitalism, as practiced in the modern world, don’t leave much room for moral scruples. The law and how to follow or sidestep it is the main limiting factor on the goal of maximising profits.

The fact is, the Nest acquisition is a good deal, expensive though it may be for Google. Nest gets funding and the chance to supercharge its entry into homes around the world. Google gets not only the hardware design expertise of Fadell and his team of ex-Apple employees (something it badly needs) but also that extra angle of attack for visualising our lives in data.

As for whether Google can regain its standing in the eyes of consumers, the question is does it want to? It’s become one of the world’s largest corporations and it’s hugely profitable. There’s an inevitable sense of sadness at the loss of innocence from those idealistic startup days, but maybe that’s always the price to be paid for success.

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    January 20, 2014 at 3:05 pm
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