Why Apps Are Different From Engines -- And Why They Aren't

In a note to clients in November 2004, UBS analyst Benjamin Schachter made an interesting observation about Google's mission statement. "Google's mission," Schachter wrote, "is 'to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.' This... mission potentially puts Google on a collision course with Microsoft."

It certainly looks as if Schachter was on to something. If GoogleClick and Microhoo haven't convinced you of Schachter's premise, consider the new tagline that Google revealed last week.

"Search, Ads and Apps" -- the tagline that Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced Thursday, at Google's annual shareholder meeting, is what Schmidt calls his vision of the "next strategy evolution" within the Googleplex. It starts with two elements of search that we're all quite familiar with -- search and ads. But it gives new prominence to a third part of the picture that, until now, has been something of a side business within Google: software applications. And those software applications -- from free Web-based Google software to its licensed premium software for businesses, governments, and universities -- place Google directly in combat with Microsoft.



"It's worth saying," Schmidt was careful to add, "that our underlying mission has not changed." If that sounds like mere lip service to an old Google, it's again worth revisiting Schachter's comments from '04. Google is in the business of organizing information; the information within software -- which is currently Microsoft's turf -- is information, too.

Of course, there still remains a fundamental difference between managing information through search engines and managing information through software applications. Search engines capture information that already exists, which is already highly public. Their only role is to make already-public information easier to find. Software applications are quite different: they help users create information. And dealing with creating information is something that, for Google, is fairly new.

And it's that difference which spells Google's key challenge in the years ahead.

I say this because, if Google wants to help people create information, it also needs to limit access to who gets to see it. And that's a real shift from Google's traditional role as a search engine -- which is based on providing, not limiting, access to all the world's knowledge.

Consider YouTube. YouTube fits nicely within Google's mission of information management, as it's essentially the leading search engine for user-generated video (a point I've made several times before). But at the same time, as YouTube is also a part of the process of creating online video, it demands that Google controls who gets to see, and to create, what. It means policing information -- from pirated content to cyberbullying -- in a way that's hardly demanded of it in the role that it's traditionally faced within search.

Now, software providers don't generally deal with issues of online piracy conducted through their software. But they do run into their own needs to control who sees what, and when -- issues that become more serious if the software is Web-based, rather than desktop-based. That could include, to take just one example, making sure that online thieves can't get access to users' Web-based spreadsheets. And as different types of information move closer together, limiting access will become as important as providing it.

And so from the vantage point of Google's mission, jumping into software is a perfectly logical next step. But from the vantage point of corporate culture, it's going to require that Google learns to shift thinking, in a way that presents a real challenge to a business whose lifeblood is search.

If anyone is up to that challenge, Google is. But exactly how the company will work out the details of that transition remains to be seen; and the choices it makes in this arena will be crucial in shaping the company for the coming years.

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