Former top Google engineer slams Larry Page social ambitions
Rivalry with Facebook is distorting company ethos, warns James Whittaker
By Sharon Gaudin | Computerworld US | Published: 10:18, 15 March 2012
A former Google executive has said the company is so focused on advertising and its increasing rivalry with Facebook that the search company is going off track.
James Whittaker, who for nearly three years was an engineering director at Google until he left to work at Microsoft last month, lashed into Google CEO Larry Page and what he called the "new Google" in a lengthy post on Microsoft's blog.
Whittaker said he used to love working at Google and was an enthusiastic evangelist for the company. That all changed, he said, when the company stopped focusing on innovation and technology and turned to capturing advertising and going after the world's biggest social network, Facebook.
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Google changed so much after Page took over the company's reins from former CEO Eric Schmidt last year that he said his last three months at Google were a "whirlwind of desperation".
Whittaker said he realises that Google always has been an advertising company but under Schmidt's leadership, employees were focused on innovation and were lauded for developing new technologies.
"From this innovation machine came strategically important products like Gmail and Chrome, products that were the result of entrepreneurship at the lowest levels of the company," he wrote. "Maybe the engineers who actually worked on ads felt it, but the rest of us were convinced that Google was a technology company first and foremost."
Then Google executives realised that they had missed the opportunity on social networking. They saw that Facebook had an enormous user base and had become a major competitor for online advertising, Whittaker wrote.
"Larry Page himself assumed command to right this wrong," wrote Whittaker. "Social became state-owned, a corporate mandate called Google+. It was an ominous name invoking the feeling that Google alone wasn't enough. Search had to be social. Android had to be social. YouTube, once joyous in their independence, had to be... well, you get the point."
He added that suddenly all innovation had to be focused on social. "Ideas that failed to put Google+ at the centre of the universe were a distraction," Whittaker said.
Page made the strategy clear last autumn when he said he wanted to use Google+ to change the entire company.
"Our ultimate ambition is to transform the overall Google experience, making it beautifully simple, almost automagical, because we understand what you want and can deliver it instantly," Page said. "This means baking identity and sharing into all of our products so that we build a real relationship with our users."
According to Whittaker's blog, this plan wasn't a positive shift for the company.
"I think [Whittaker] is saying that the Google he knew was one that drove hard to develop innovative new products for the sake of serving users," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "The old Google just tried to push out cool new things for users, and the advertising riches followed. This new Google seems to be trying to channel its efforts to satisfying advertiser, not user, needs. I'd argue that this approach will be less successful over the long term."
He added that Google's obsession with Facebook isn't healthy for the company. "Google has to get used to the idea that they can't be everything to everyone," said Olds. "They can't have all the toys in the store."
This isn't the first time that a Google executive has publicly aired his grievances with the company. Last year, Steve Yegge, a Google software engineer, accidentally posted a long rant publicly on Google+, slamming Google and calling the company's new social network a "pathetic afterthought."
Google did not respond to a request for comment.