Google's Faces Of The Stranger

It's getting harder to refer to Google as a single entity when it has so many faces. Any time Google makes some announcement, I'm tempted to ask, "Which Google?"

Lately, Google has been revealing so many sides that I'm not sure Google as a whole could really answer that question. Does Google know who Google is? I'm reminded of Billy Joel's lyrics to "The Stranger." He writes, "Some are satin, some are steel, some are silk, and some are leather. They're the faces of the stranger but we love to try them on."

This week and next, we'll explore three of the faces Google has tried on recently: the Banker, the Babysitter, and the Broker; we'll focus on the first today. They all tend to come off more like steel than silk.

The Banker

There have been rumors for years of a GDrive -- an online hard drive from Google. Now it's real in spirit even if not by name, but you have to pay for it. Unlike Apple with its iPhone, the hype has only hurt Google; the media and blogosphere greeted the announcement with a mix of disinterest and disappointment.



Currently, Gmail offers 2.8 gigabytes of storage and counting for free, while Picasa Web Albums allows for 1 GB. What's new is that now you can pay to use Google as your information bank, buying 6 GB for $20 per year, 25 GB for $75, 100 GB for $250, and $250 for $500. You pay with Google Checkout, and the subscription auto-renews with 30 days' notice.

Google should have anticipated the backlash, as it has a hard time convincing consumers to pay for its services. Paying for Google to store data is anathema to both its mission statement and its positioning. Google's mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Though I was on a plane while writing this column, I was able to find the exact quote by using Google Desktop, which cached Google's Wikipedia entry two months ago. Google Desktop, Gmail, and Docs & Spreadsheets are just a few of Google's free services that other companies have charged for. Why can't Google find a way to make storage free?

At times like this, I think back to Jeremiah Owyang, who has written on his Web Strategist blog that in the future, companies will pay to store consumers' data (he fittingly has a new post on why Google should pay its users). The reversal of that business model seems a longer way off with this Google news.

The storage service itself feels underwhelming. Gmail just isn't the best interface for storing files; it's a lot easier to directly upload files using other online hard drives. Google also needs to better integrate its other services. As Google Operating System commented, Docs & Spreadsheets could be in the running. Better yet, I'd love to see Google integrate this storage with Google Desktop, where you automatically can back up an entire 250 GB hard drive. An aside: As I was writing this, I read a post on Mashable about Gmail add-ons that directed me to a Firefox extension that makes it easy to use Gmail for file storage. Google needs to incorporate this functionality.

Even if Google must charge, its tiers seem overpriced. You can buy an external 250 GB hard drive for about $100 to $200 (according to prices on Froogle), and you never have to renew it. Amortized over five years, that's $2,500 for 250 GB ($10/GB) of Google's storage compared to roughly $150 for 250 GB of physical storage ($0.60/GB). Personally, I'd be more than happy to subdue my own privacy concerns of Google backing up my data if it would store it for free or at least cheaply, but I won't be paying Google $2 to $3 per gigabyte annually.

The timing of the announcement is especially ironic given the subsequent news that Google is discontinuing selling TV shows on Google Video. This Bloomberg News article states, "Google's decision to close the retail part of its video site indicates the company had less success selling content than attracting advertising spending, which accounts for 99 percent of revenue. The purchase of YouTube, where the videos are all free, catapulted Google from seventh to first among video-sharing providers on the Web." The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is Googling.

The biggest question that I think Google will have to decide on is whether it will stop offering this extra storage service altogether (which would create an uproar from its customers), or whether it will drastically reduce its rates. Google dropped merchants' fees and even pays new consumers to use Google Checkout, so why wouldn't Google offer 20 or 50 free gigabytes of storage to erode Flickr's market share?

That would also imply that Google knows what Google is, an idea that's increasingly hard to accept. We'll see how other faces of Google tie into its identity next week.

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