Once upon a time, a group of early Google employees got together to try and codify the company’s core values. What they came up with was the company’s snappy unofficial motto:“Don’t Be Evil.”
Although unsaid, it was pretty clear who the Evil entity was that Google intended to set itself apart from. “Evil” on the Internet, and in the world of computing in general, resided in Redmond. Microsoft had for years gained a reputation for its aggressive practices, leveraging its monopoly position on desktops to strong-arm developers and trample potential competitors such as Netscape.
How far we’ve come in less a decade.
Looking around at the state of the contemporary Internet world turns up a number of major players, all of whom – in the Google motto sense of the word – could be described as “evil”.
Let’s start with Google itself. Whether or not the company believes in its old motto, it became clear years ago that nobody else buys it. Probably about the time that Google first acquiesced to the Chinese government’s censorious policy with regards to the Internet.
GOOG has become “evil” in the eyes of its detractors by becoming the Internet’s resident mega-octopus: huge, with a hand in just about anything that moves. Whether it be search, online advertising, video, or Web-based email, Google pwns major chunks of the 21st century online economy. Additionally it has a stake in a vast gamut of other things from mobile handsets to DNA testing.
Google’s gorilla status means that it can also quickly and effectively kill other companies. Companies that find themselves on the GOOG blacklist see a sudden sharp drop in revenues and face a protracted, often futile fight, to get back. Similarly, companies that live by online advertising can suffer tremendously every time that Google tweaks its ranking algorithm.
Second on the current Evil List is Apple. Yes, the same Apple that many felt embodied all that was good about high-tech: attractive devices coupled with software that works without a hitch.
I have a rather pronounced love-hate thing going on with Steve Jobs, so it’s been interesting to see him slide on over to the Dark Side lately. The case against Apple (laid out effectively here) can be summarized in one word: paternalism.
Apple offers a vision of a nice-looking, well-run world. But it’s a closed world that is getting closed-er by the day. Apple devices are locked down. You can’t tinker with the hardware and you can only use software that Apple approves of. So far so good. But since the release of the iPad, Jobs has taken the whole “closed garden” thing to the next level.
First, there was the SDK flap. It is now not enough that apps for the iPhone and iPad get Apple’s imprimatur. The new iPhone OS 4.0 SDK specifies the programming languages developers can use and, specifically, bans them from using cross-platform compilers. The new rules are part of Jobs’s crusade to wipe out Adobe’s Flash. But the end result is to piss off the developer community.
Also part of Jobs’s vision: ads. Ads controlled by Apple. Having bought Quattro, Apple plans to monetize online content running on its devices via a whole range of new types of advertising. These will include full-screen, non-blockable ads, that demand some kind of user interaction in order to make them go away.
As Slate’s Farhad Manjoo pointed out, “Apple has solved the problem of users finding today's small ads too annoying to click on by making it easier for developers to create bigger, more-interactive ads that we'll likely have no choice but to click on.” Yay!
Facebook is the third member of our revamped Axis of Evil. While Google tries to control the world and Apple stifles innovation, Facebook mucks about with the very essence of its users. As the platform of choice for transferring people’s real lives, interests, and relationships (not to mention drunken pictures) online, Facebook faces real challenges when it comes to privacy protection.
The recent announcement at the F8 Conference of its new Open Graph is both remarkable and not a little scary. For the first time, FB has opened its own walled garden to the rest of the Internet – or perhaps brought the rest of the Internet into its own walled garden – by allowing users to interact with websites, music, documents and other things while tying these interactions to users’ profiles.
Facebook is playing a tricky game with its users, but clearly feels it can get away with pushing the privacy envelope for now. If they push it till it breaks, their evil quotient will rise spectacularly.
What’s most interesting about the Evil list is what company isn’t on it. Specifically, that same little outfit out of Redmond. Microsoft these days is viewed as a lot more benign, the company that puts out operating systems that are much better than they used to be and search engines that are not bad at all. Not to mention a company that generally plays nicely with others.
The whole notion that the Internet world is controlled by “evil” companies is less a reflection of the companies themselves and more to do with the Internet. The definition of “evil” here is really just large businesses acting like large businesses and trying to increase their revenue streams in the ways they think are best. In the end, it is a sign that the Internet has matured into a commercialized business sector rather than the province of amateurs