Web development: Does Google matter?

These days, the digerati are not showing a lot of love for Google. Last week, a Gizmodo piece summarized much of the criticism of the search giant, and encouraged others to pile on. There was much scoffing – if not outright derision – for Google initiatives: a consumer activity log, a forthcoming cloud drive and a possible online hardware store. If Google has lost faith among Silicon Valley pundits, does that mean it has lost relevance for web developers?

Mat Honan’s Gizmodo essay says Google is losing consumer trust as it shifts its focus from search towards integrating Google products with Google+ as glue. I suspect few mainstream consumers are aware of most of the sins Honan enumerates: e.g., end-running Safari settings, favoring its own products in search results, settling with the Justice Department over Canadian pharma ads, scraping data from a Kenyan business directory. They’re certainly not abandoning Google products like search (66 percent market U.S. market share), Android (46 percent) or Chrome (19 percent and growing). But Honan’s sense that Google has violated its Don’t Be Evil credo is echoed by a former Google engineering director, who agrees that Google’s business objectives take precedence over technology innovation.

Fundamental tensions

My GigaOM colleagues Bobbie Johnson and Barb Darrow point out how Google’s business practices lead to vulnerabilities with the developer community. Bobbie airs the complaint of a startup founder that Google gets developers hooked, then abandons or, worse yet, competes with them. Barb shows how Google must combat a feeling among developers that its current business focus means that some core technology platform services could be abandoned on a whim.

And Google’s platform strategy is shifting in a way that could alienate developers. Google has long been a pioneer in web technology platforms, through standards organization participation (W3C), its own APIs and services (search, Maps, AdWords) and casual mash-ups like embeddable YouTube videos. Over the years, Google has delivered its platform through widely distributed services rather than depending on a web destination for housing third-party applications. Google’s search site was in the business of driving users to other sites rather than holding onto them for extended sessions.

But several factors are driving Google towards creating web destinations, exposing fundamental tensions between its destination and services that make developers uneasy:

Back to basics

Google could restore a lot of developer faith if it re-learned one of its own lessons and adopted a few from Microsoft. Google’s Android strategy proves that the company knows that platform-building requires long-term investment. That’s why its decision to raise API licensing fees on Maps was puzzling and risky. Historically, not only has Google been liberal with its API licensing, it was the first platform that came with a ready-made revenue stream for developers via its ad networks. Google just introduced a revenue-sharing survey service for online publishers as an alternative to paywalls. That service would work just as well for apps.

Unlike Microsoft, Google has been open with APIs, but too hands-off with developer tools and support. Google’s Go programming language has never caught on, while it is slowly rolling out APIs for Google+ apps. Spending some more money and resources on developer support, including packages of training, tools and its popular analytics offerings could gain Google a critical edge over Facebook. Facebook’s app momentum comes from its audience growth and unique technologies; it hasn’t done a particularly good job cultivating developers.

Google’s search, unified communications, mapping and visualization technologies are still leading-edge. Developers are still interested in Google technology – tickets to its June I/O developer conference sold out in 20 minutes. Tying some revenue-sharing and support programs a little tighter would sweeten a lot of the bad taste left by recent business practices.

Question of the week

What can Google do to spark developer interest and trust?
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David Card

VP Research Gigaom Research

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