Grappling with Google

I am an avid Google user, I'll say that right away. My main personal email account a Gmail account and I clearly use Blogger for "Welcome to the Interdome" and my other less-regular blog projects. But additionally, I use many other Google 'products', as they call have nicely named them. Because Google's growing hegemony is always news in this Interdome world, particularly so of late with the release of Chrome and the search engine's tenth anniversary, I thought I might share some of my theories and reflections about the modern phenomenon known as Google, both as a user, and as one with a penchant for waxing philosophical about semiotics, the Internet, the future, and any and all correlations between them all.

Firstly, let me say that this will not be a review of Chrome, and furthermore, I have not yet had the (by almost all accounts) pleasure of trying Google's new web browser. However, I am a user of many other web applications by the big G, on levels ranging from newbie experimenter to heavy user. I use:

Gmail - email
Reader - RSS compiler
iGoogle - widget customized home page
Blogger - blog publisher
Finance - stock portfolio and other market tools
Docs - web based document editing
Sites - wiki-like sites
Notebook - web and hyperlink notes
Bookmarks - bookmarks
Page Creator - a very canned web page creator
Apps - Group Intranet
Checkout - I think this is what is called, it stores billing info for use win appoved online vendors
Search - in various guises
Talk/Chat - IM
iPhone App - a native app portal for various searching services on the iPhone
Maps/Earth - different incarnations of map searching
GoogleSMS - search via SMS message

I think that's it. A lot eh? And while you have no doubt heard of many, I'm guessing that there is almost no one (who isn't a Google developer) who has used them all. I didn't even know I was using them all at first. That's right: I was Googling beyond my wildest dreams.

This is the characteristic of Google that I think is most relevant, and the most likely to cause the Google campus to be stormed by hordes of torch-throwing Luddites. No, not that you are forced to use the word "Google" more times than the mind can take in a simple essay, but... oh wait, yeah, that's it.

So far, I have used "Google" as both a noun, a verb, and an adjective. I can see adverb and preposition as possible too, though I'm not sure about article. The point is: Google has invaded grammar from every angle. At first, when Google was a verb synonymous with "search", it was just a brilliant piece of marketing and a kick-ass testament to domination of a certain market of which most tech firm officers probably have naughty dreams. Now it has even spread further in meaning, if not in common usage. When I talk about Googling myself now, I can't but help think of the way that my internet-self has become incarnate within Google's server farms.

For instance: my blog is hosted on Google's computer; my financial interests in the market (though only "interests" in the most casual sense, the holding values being a stock-market-game) are analyzed through their flash charts; much of my data is off somewhere in their server cloud; even my credit card and billing information are held in trust since I purchased a URL through their services. Somebody call Sandra Bullock; the net (I mean Google) has me.

This is the essence of the cloud. Cloud, for those of you who don't geek out on semiotic/tech/future stuff, is the new term for computing resources that are not on your computer. They are hosted "in the cloud", so that you can access them from anywhere with a connection to the internet, and so that you don't have to have them filling your own personal terminal. Webmail was the first mainstream cloud application I suppose, though conceptually, the point of the entire internet is that it is in the cloud. Equally accessible, always on, as long as you have the hardware to "log on" (and as long as net neutrality wins the day).

This futuristic concept of interconnectedness really troubles some people. They are paranoid, not only of one's microwave talking to one's car radio via invisible wires, but also of having fundamental aspects of their life and personality not found anywhere in space. Ropes are safe, because you can see them. Magnets are black magic, because electromagnetic energy is invisible. Thinking or speaking is natural, but writing is the devil's work because it perpetuates beyond the moment and can carry ideas outside of the soul, etc. This is the history of time, and the human technological legacy. The minute something with "substance" exists in a new dimension, especially one that is non-visible or non-spatial, gets some wood and some rope because we're going to burn these damn witches out of our town.

I actually like that I have a non-corporeal existence. (Okay, I wasn't too thrilled with having my credit card info tied to my address and email, so I took care of that.) But the entire reason that I have spread myself through the Google-verse is that because I like having an identity in the cloud. It's actually very convenient to have messages, addresses, and other personal, oft-referenced information stored in a dimension that is ever-present, and more and more, accessible from nearly anywhere. Google likes it too, because this is one of the goals of their business. If they drive computer usage into the cloud, they will win, because in the cloud is where their applications are often the best. And more importantly, there they can tax the usage through advertising and other, hardly noticeable means.

You may not believe me, who often rails against the dominance and hegemony of any particular system (especially those for-profit) that I am glad that all of my cloud essence is via Google. The key here is interoperability. Back when I was first getting into cloud living, I had a blog, a private-community message board, three email accounts, a thousand bookmarks in my browser, a MySpace, a Facebook, and some other crap too. Trying to sync all of these listings was just too time consuming. In addition, having it all unified under the Google system means that there is a certain guarantee of quality--I am not going to be inundated with pop-ups or emails stemming from my Google account. In fact, their spam-blockers in email are some of the best I've encountered. Of course, it could be argued that their motivation is to let you focus on their own advertisements. But, even here, Google corporate face maintains some stability. They clearly understand that when you blast a person with advertisements, the advertising becomes ineffective. Notice when you enter the Google-verse through a mobile system, you see a lot viewer ads. If one-fifth of my screen was an ad bar, using my Gmail on a mobile phone would be useless. If I can't use Gmail mobile, why would I use it at all? Hence, but presenting ad-free content, they maintain my usership, and can present me with minimally-invasive, targeted ads when the time is right. This is worlds better than the adporn on MySpace, or the bouncing, distracting Flash on many sites, or even better that the radio ads that tempt me into buying a car by shouting at me. If only all the ads in the world were Google Ads!

And this is why Google released Chrome, a browser built for cloud apps, and they are working on a mobile OS, Android (which we should probably see sometime this year on an actual phone). They want to ensure interoperability, and compatibility, so their cloud interfaces can win in customers that will keep it all "in house". They are going for brand loyalty here, which I think is the smartest way to run a business. If Chrome maximizes the cloud experience, and if all of their apps work on all mobile phones, then they win. They don't have to own the software or the hardware, and hence, have been developing both Chrome and Android open-source. They can benefit from other's ingenuity, and keep it all in the family. The future is Google, and the future looks good.

Now, don't think I'm buying Google stock just yet. There are serious problems stemming from this domination, and I'm not referring to the Google mutant army being trained underground. Domination leads to hegemony, and hegemony leads to a lack of change. And change is just what has allowed Google to evolve and stay ahead. They can't forget this, otherwise it won't matter how many new apps are launched, or how long the Google product list becomes. After the "inter" that describes how the apps keep the user within the Google universe, "operability" is the other half of the world. It is one thing to create a branded app for every cloud function you can think of, and buy the ones that you can't create (e.g. Doubleclick, and YouTube). They have to work. Here Google has had a number of successes, but I also see some failures.

Email and search are the biggest successes to me, and naturally so, since I would bet this accounts for 70% of the functionality of most peoples' web experience. Across every app there are very good search functions built in, and these are getting better all the time. It doesn't matter if I'm search my email, the web, web images, my portfolio, or even my desktop; I can find what I want almost instantaeously. Their search capacities put the Google in Google, you might say. Gmail is less heralded brilliance, but groundbreaking nonetheless. Infinite archiving, search, and as I already said, some of the best spam blockers out there. What you want, when you want it, and none of the crap. The "conversation" format is also very good because it seems very natural, and many other text-communication services have come to style themselves on this model, though Google was probably not the first to do so.

The other easily generalizable feature of Google is also the beginning of its weakness. One word: function. Google seems to have a very good handle on the range of people that use the internet. There are people who have no interest in the internet other than email, view a few photos, and perhaps search for an address or an article from time to time. There are those, usually teens, who want video and flashy graphics. And then there are those with specialized interests, ranging from investors, to techies, to anything else you could imagine. Google spreads itself across all these areas, encompassing minimalism and detail.

But the problem is, that sometimes Google seems spread too thin. It seems that they try to cover areas in a temporary, "yeah, we've got that" sort of way, and don't invest the time necessary to really integrate the app into the overall system. For example, it was only recently that they were able to integrate my contacts from Gmail/Chat into my share list for Reader. This would seem like a nobrainer from the very start. In addition, I can insert RSS feeds into my Gmail, my homepage, and my Blog. But I already have a mammoth list of RSS subscriptions in Reader. How come the only one I can view my Reader list through is the homepage? Why isn't that carried to my blog if I want it, or at least my Gmail? It continues. I can absorb URLs and a text note into my Reader "shared" folder. I can do the same thing into one of my Notebooks. But I can't interchange the two. I can share Reader entries via my contact list, but only share Notebooks and Sites via email addresses. I can "Follow" blogs via Blogger, but this has no correlation to my RSS feeds already in Reader. I feel like I'm back in the old days, trying to update my "favorite books" list across three different social networking sites, or remembering my different screen names for different IM clients. I haven't even tried Orkut, Google's own social networking client. I'm afraid of what I might have to re-input there.

And here, is my overall worst compatibility experience. I was trying to set up a web page for my wife's artwork. Searching the web to see all the different hosting options, I saw that I could register a domain through Google Apps. How easy! I won't have to create a new password and user name, I can just extend the functionality through Google. In less that three minutes I had a domain, and I was ready to go. I had launched Google Apps, a quasi-intranet app that makes a sort of Google homepage for your users. Okay, cool. Megan can check her site email via Gmail, and I can administer through mine. This is good compatibility. But wait a minute: I need a new user name for this site, because Apps logs in by the domain name, not by Gmail. New user name? And so it begins...

Then I tried to design the page. Out opens Google Page Creator, a very, very basic site designer. I'm stuck with like three different styles, and a choice of one, two, or three columns. Okay, at least let me edit the colors. Nope. I go to the help page; I figure, I can alter the html of my Google Blog, I should be able to change the hex values of the color somewhere. The help page consists of four entires, and a notice saying that they have ceased support and signups for Page Creator, and that now they direct us to Google Sites, with "new features". Now I go over to Google Sites. By this time I have 6 different tabs open in my browser.

At Google Sites, I find I need to register again. I use my standard Gmail login this time, and now find that I'm not the proud owner of a website, but that I have started a group Wiki that is very similar to the Google Apps look, what with Google functionalities like Calendar and Video dropped into it, but even less customizing in terms of looks. Furthermore, there seems to be no way to link this Site functionality to the Apps or Page Creator. And still, no html editing.

For a different project I thought that perhaps this wiki setup could be useful. I could have a multiple user space for editing, with all the features included. Wrong again. Labels (like you see at the bottom of my blog posts) are used throughout Google and the rest of the internet to group disparate articles and entries, like blogs or wikis. But although there are tags in Blogger, there are none in Sites. And furthermore, there is no way to export a Site! When it's there, it has to stay there. In the Support Group I found a thread in which others ask about this very critical functionality. Mike, a "Google Sites Guide" instructs us to a tab in the "owner" mode, but then apologetically recants, saying that this was an experimental function that hasn't been released yet, and he wasn't sure when they would release it. That was back in March. I eventually went back to Notebook, where my shared users can add label tags, and export the Notebook either as html or as a Google Doc. (both very useful!) But unfortunately, there is only one level of hierarchy available in Notebook, and no linking between additions, like there could be in a wiki.

So at the end, I have all this functionality, but it is useless for what I want. It is designed piece-meal, so that for certain users there is only precisely what they want, although if anyone wants to dig deeper we're stuck, even if this sort of functionality exists elsewhere in the Google universe. I feel like I have the most awesome set of legos ever sitting in front of me, but I don't have any flat pieces. I can build a really long wall, or a giant tower with no roof, but the only sort of enclosed buildings I can make is a chunky-looking, completely solid pyramid.

So this is where Google has to really advance. This functionality has to be complete intergrated. It might even have to be rebuilt, starting from the bottom. What we need is a linguistic syntax; a way of connecting functionality (verbs) with data (nouns) that doesn't require ten languages, each only having a couple of tenses. I wish to write, have written, wrote, and be writing all in the same language. If I can, then I can use that language. If not, it will become a dead language, and that's all there is to it. It's a philosophical mission; to unite functionality through the interface in which it is used. Isn't this the basis of all good-thinking philosophy, whether in politics, economics, morality, or language? How can we describe the world, both qualitatively and functionally?

I know re-creating Google from the ground up is highly unlikely. But if they can really unify all these tools, then they will really succeed in their goal. Microsoft first dominated because they allowed for a full span of different levels of functionality all within the same operating system. If Google can do the same thing in the cloud, well, then we'll hardly need operating systems anymore. Everyone will use a simple computer loaded with Linux, Firefox (maybe Chrome eventually?) and a shit-load of RAM.

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