Is Google Spreading Itself Too Thin? - InformationWeek

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Mobile // Mobile Applications
Commentary
10/26/2005
02:53 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
Commentary
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Is Google Spreading Itself Too Thin?

Reading the recent news out of Google, I can't help thinking about Netscape. Like Google, Netscape had a dazzling entry into the world of business. At that time, Web browsers were still a new thing; there were literally two dozen commonly available, none of them with decisive market dominance. And none of them presented any significant competition to the Netscape browser, which was decisively smaller, faster and lighter. Later, Netscape launched the first superstar dotcom IPO. We all

Reading the recent news out of Google, I can't help thinking about Netscape. Like Google, Netscape had a dazzling entry into the world of business. At that time, Web browsers were still a new thing; there were literally two dozen commonly available, none of them with decisive market dominance. And none of them presented any significant competition to the Netscape browser, which was decisively smaller, faster and lighter.

Later, Netscape launched the first superstar dotcom IPO.

We all know how that story turned out: badly. The common wisdom is that Microsoft crushed Netscape by outmarketing it, and by illegally wielding its clout as a monopolist. And that's true, but there was another factor: Netscape lost sight of its customers and mission. The browser became the Elvis Presley of software: fat, slow, and bloated. Now, the company's only significant presence is as a brand owned by America Online.

Now, let's fast-forward to the present. Like the Netscape browser ca. 1995, Google's search service is so fast and powerful that the competition can't compete.

Like Netscape, Google leveraged its early success to branch out into other services: In Netscape's case, that was Web servers, e-mail, and directory services. Google branched out to provide GMail, Google Maps, Froogle and, recently, Google Reader.

Like Netscape, Google is being hailed as the company that will kill Microsoft; doing to Microsoft what Microsoft did to IBM 20 years ago. And Microsoft's critics are talking just like they did during Netscape's prime, eight or nine years ago, saying that Microsoft is fat, bloated, doesn't understand the business models created by new technology, and doomed.

But Netscape took on too much. Is Google doing the same?Earlier this week, Google provided a sneak peek at a new service, Google Base. Google is being very hush-hush about the whole thing, but the site briefly made its way onto the public Internet, and an alert blogger snapped a screen capture. It's very mysterious what Google Base is; Google says it's an online, searchable database into which users can submit items.

The site listed several examples of the kinds of items that could be submitted: used cars, descriptions of a party planning service and a "database of protein structures." That led observers to speculate that Google Base might be potential competition for eBay; the Associated Press called it a "classified ad service."

And that's not all Google is doing. They're expanding into China, entering into a mysterious alliance with Sun, and developing up to 1 million square feet of research facility on a NASA research center in Silicon Valley.

All of this activity raises the fear that, like Netscape, Google is taking on too much and, like Netscape, Google will do what any company or person does when they're overworked: screw up badly.

As my colleague Rob Preston points out in an excellent editorial that expands on this subject: For all the talk about Microsoft's imminent demise, the company is in fact healthy and thriving. Its operating earnings were up 61% year-over-year, to $14.6 billion in fiscal 2005. It had $38 billion in cash and short-term investments at year end, even after giving back a record $44 billion to shareholders. And Windows and Office are still monopolies, and Internet Explorer has about 90% market share.

Google is a powerful company, led and staffed by fearsomely smart people. But it remains to be seen whether Google will be a dominant player in the tech industry long-term, or whether it will self-destruct and be quickly forgotten.

What do you think?

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