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Brislen on Tech: Googling the future

Paul Brislen, Editor. 23 October 2020, 3:42 pm

There's a clear dividing line in my memory - before Google and after.

Before Google we had AltaVista, a search engine in the crudest of senses. It would search for the words you were looking for and would return a bajillion hits for anything remotely interesting.

There were all like that - just a hosepipe of madness spraying answers at you.

Then there was Dogpile, a search engine that combined FOUR search engines and gave you quadruple the results for even less accuracy.

Then there was all the advertising packed onto the page - you didn't know where to look, what to click, it was a nightmare.

Then Google arrived and it was clean and simple and the first result was usually the right one. They even had a box you could click on "feeling lucky" and it worked! This was a revolution.

Then Google started doing other things. Email and a browser and a bunch of cool stuff like maps and it was all free and better than the paid stuff you got from other providers.

These were the halcyon days because Google was taking it to The Man, in this case mostly Microsoft, and was winning. It's motto was: "Don't be evil" and we all laughed like loons because they could never be evil, right?

Right?

Companies are companies and we tend to forget that today's villains were often yesterday's heroes. Microsoft had freed us from the tyranny of IBM's control. It had introduced the home PC and built an empire on happy users jumping in with both feet.

But then the wheel turned and the brand stopped being the challenger and became the incumbent and Google came along and challenged everything (yay!) and Microsoft was the villain.

This happens all the time of course. Vodafone beat Telecom in the mobile market by being cool, but then became uncool and 2Degrees took up the mantle. Nokia was the hero device, then Blackberry beat it into a bloody mess and Apple came along and swept all before it, but then Android came along… you see how this goes.

Today it's Google's turn in the sinbin with the US Department of Justice accusing the tech giant of abusing its monopoly powers in search (where it has a more-than 90% user rate) and so it will be regulated. Somehow.

We've been here before - you'll remember the way the DOJ curtailed Microsoft's ambitions with a swift and decisive case that made sure we couldn't bundle the browser with the operating system. Yeah. That showed them. It only took a dozen years, legal fees equivalent to three solid gold globes the size of the moon and resulted in absolutely no change to the industry whatsoever.

And now they're at it again with pretty much the same game plan.

Governments really struggle to understand how to regulate tech companies. They think the power is in the bundle - and it is, to a degree - but it's not the core power of the tech giant. That power is in the way users of all stripes actually like a monopoly.

Think about when you're selling something. You go where the biggest market is - in New Zealand that's TradeMe but pretty much everywhere else it's eBay. We had eBay in New Zealand but TradeMe had already reached the tipping point where so many users were happy with it they didn't need an alternative, so eBay never took off here.

When you're buying something you go where the most sellers are - Alibaba or Amazon. Again, here we have two monopolies in their own geography offering limited options to us Kiwis, so there's a bit of room for a tussle but not much. And companies like Mighty Ape are doing very well in many market segments.

It's the same for search or for mobile devices or for social media pages. Think about Facebook, or Apple, Amazon, or Google and they each have their core base service offering that brings in enough cash they can attack markets that are adjacent to their own by offering a free alternative or by buying up the smaller players. But the power they have isn't in that conglomeration so much as it is in that initial monopoly.

So Google may well have a stranglehold on search, but forcing the company to pay a fine (even a big one) or perhaps even sell off a division like YouTube (which isn't even on the cards here) won't do a thing to the core offering. Regulation like this just does not work.

That's why I worry when politicians start talking about regulating social media. Breaking Facebook up into its component parts - Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp - will not slow the company down at all.

Break Up

A better approach to regulating tech is to insist they pay tax where they operate, insist they have a transparent appeals process, insist they allow competitors access to the app stores or to their messaging platform, insist they abide by community standards we get a say in.

That way we might actually effect change. But of course, that takes time and nuance and doesn't win elections quite so visibly so I don't think we'll see that any time soon.

And of course if there's an alternative solution out there we can always Google it.


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