Amazon = Evolution, Google = Intelligent Design?

First published October 20, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Ironically, the hottest thing on Google+is a rant from a Google Insider about how Google+ is hopelessly limited because Google doesn’t get the importance of platforms.  Steve Yegge goes on at some length (over 4,000 words) contrasting his first six years at Amazon and his last six years at Google.

The media jumped on it, because Yegge spent some of his rant bashing Google+, which is rapidly collecting more holes than Bonnie and Clyde’s ill fated 1934 Ford sedan. But Yegge was simply using Google+ as an example of how badly Google has dropped the ball when it comes to building platforms to support external development. There are many, many things that Google does far better than Amazon (according to Yegge) but building out platforms is not one of them:

“Bezos realized long before the vast majority of Amazonians that Amazon needs to be a platform.”

In contrast, Google tends to keep their code base under internal lock and key to protect their IP. In fact, even their own Chinese developers didn’t have access to Google’s core code, for fear that IP would somehow leak out and end up on a Chinese competitor’s site. A valid concern, to be sure, but that approach runs directly counter to the open environment required to become a platform developer, something that Yegge says almost everyone does better than Google:

“That one last thing that Google doesn’t do well is Platforms. We don’t understand platforms. We don’t ‘get’ platforms.

What, Google+ is a prime example of our complete failure to understand platforms from the very highest levels of executive leadership (hi Larry, Sergey, Eric, Vic, howdy howdy) down to the very lowest leaf workers (hey yo). We all don’t get it.”

What, then, is the advantage of being a platform developer?  For one thing, it leverages the power of Darwinian development. As long as development stays locked behind the corporate firewall, you simply can’t match the innovation that will come from an open ecosystem. This is especially true in a corporate environment where management tends towards micromanagement, true of both Amazon and Google. Bezos and Page both tend to run roughshod over internal developers, dismissing ideas out of hand and turning development into a political minefield. But Steve Bezos realized the limitations of this command and control approach.

“The other big realization he [Bezos] had was that he can’t always build the right thing.”

Every successful species evolves through a long and arduous process of trial and error. Evolution requires sheer volume, leaving the environment to be the eventual judge of success. Bezos has harnessed the same approach for Amazon. Google is instead taking an “intelligent design” approach. Personally, I much prefer Amazon’s odds for success. But they’re not the only one who has embraced Darwinian development.

In exploring the lack of momentum of Google Plus One, you have to compare against Facebook. One thing that Facebook did which helped build incredible momentum was to turn their site into a platform for social networking of all kinds.

“Facebook gets it. That’s what really worries me. That’s what got me off my lazy butt to write this thing.”

In looking at social, Google got that it was important, but what they didn’t get was that communities, whether online or in the real world, develop organically on top of required superstructures. They evolve, they aren’t created.  Facebook understands this, but Google hasn’t quite caught on yet.

“Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that’s not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work.”

As luck would have it, Yegge also touched on the topic of last week’s column, the incredible intuition of Steve Jobs. I mentioned that I hadn’t seen the same “magic” in Larry Page. Yegge seems to agree:

“The problem is that we are trying to predict what people want and deliver it for them. You can’t do that. Not really. Not reliably. There have been precious few people in the world, over the entire history of computing, who have been able to do it reliably. Steve Jobs was one of them. We don’t have a Steve Jobs here. I’m sorry, but we don’t.”

Yegge’s post is required reading, because it offers a startlingly frank and transparent view inside Google, and I applaud Google’s courage in allowing it to remain open to the public. What is really fascinating though, is what this means for the future of search and the role of Google in it. Unfortunately, I’m at my maximum word count, so I’ll explore that next week.

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