(Side note: The challenge with writing blog posts on my mobile phone whilst travelling on a train is that I forget about them. Just discovered this one, written over a month ago and updated based on recent news. Oh, and for those of a certain age, hum the related Madonna tune to yourself whilst reading.)
‘A-ha’ moments tend to sneak up on you. It’s no shock to state that Google is top dog when it comes to searching the Internet. But the breadth of their services was made clear when helping to fix my mom’s computer. Opening the browser, I asked if she really wanted MSN as her home page. Not really was the answer. We established the sites she visited daily were: Gmail (email), BBC (news) and The Met Office (weather). I suggested we look at iGoogle.
Explaining how iGoogle worked showed just how far Google has come to dominate the information-seeking side of the Internet. Default gadgets on the iGoogle page included: Email (Google), News (Google), Maps (Google), Weather (Google) and Video (Google). Dropped in a second news gadget (BBC, some habits die hard) and ‘daily puzzle’ gadget.
Google is to information-seeking (still the current primary activity on the Internet, regardless of what the Web 2.0 crowd might say) what Microsoft was to the desktop computer in the 1990s. And when you’re the dominant player, you get first shot at taking control of the ‘next big thing’. That doesn’t mean you will be first. Highly unlikely given the next big thing usually involves disrupting the current big thing, i.e. your world. But, being the current top dog means you should have ample resources to retaliate, in round 1 at least.
When Netscape established itself as the first dominant browser for the Internet back in the mid-1990s, introducing a new world of working with information beyond the desktop, Microsoft didn’t exactly take it lying down. But that was just round 1. In the late-1990s, a couple of PhD students at Stanford tried hawking their shiny new PageRank algorithm, to no avail. The main Internet players didn’t believe there was any money to be made from search. And so Google was born.
What is/will be Google’s challenge? The two trends with the most potential to disrupt how we use the Internet are: mobile devices and social networks. New (and old) companies have already emerged as key players in both areas.
In the world of mobile devices, Google Android is going to face an uphill battle to challenge Apple’s iPhone, which has humiliated all previous efforts at making the Internet easy to access from a mobile device. But the mobile phone market is far far bigger than the target audience for the iPhone. Some of the best examples of adoption have been in developing countries, using mobile phones for activities as diverse as shepherds tracking goats, fisherman trading surplus stock and people not needing cash or credit cards to purchase goods. I’m not sure that Facebook has such a solid hold on the world of social networks. It’s a crowded playground that Google ought to be able to join through its Gmail estate. All the more so if Skype were to be bagged from eBay. The stickiest social networking sites seem to be those that also have an interface designed for mobile devices…
And we’re back to the good old Innovator’s Dilemma. In 1998, the assumption was that there was no money to be made from search, that controlled navigation (directories) better suited traditional forms of advertising – banners and friends. Google changed everything. Now, everyone wants to make money from social networks and the mobile Internet, using current advertising methods. And it isn’t working.
Online advertising works well with information-seeking activities. Social networks are not about information-seeking. They are about people-seeking and information-sharing. If advertising is to succeed on social networks, it needs to be in a different format, one suited to conversations and tribes. What can be done to encourage people to share the adverts? The mobile Internet is about information-seeking, but in a very different format to using a computer and traditional web-browser. Limited screen-size means all noise must be eliminated from a web site to make it usable. And adverts are part of the noise, no matter how concise they may be. People are unlikely to do online shopping from a mobile phone, the target for many adverts. But they are likely to have their mobile phone with them when they do real-world shopping. Add GPS to the mobile phone, and new possibilities arise. Currently, it is the mobile operators that have come up with profitable solutions. (Something Apple has recognised and leveraged with the iPhone.) I pay a much-increased monthly premium to T-Mobile in order to have an unlimited data plan. I typically use less than 20% of the included minutes/texts per month. Limited battery life and patchy network coverage ensure unlimited data doesn’t mean that much data. Along with a dearth of usable web sites…
The next Microsoft, Google, whatever will be the company that creates (intentionally or accidentally) a new business model that better fits with the new big thing than current business models that were designed for the current big thing.