Original Google homepage, from 9to5google.com, via Kottke

This guy, Don Norman, doesn’t like Google. He essentially does a good articulation of the old argument “if the service is free, then what they’re selling is you,” and it’s a compelling argument. What Google sells is advertising: its free search, email, maps, social network, productivity software and everything else are simply a means of attracting eyeballs to adverts. In that way it’s no different to most free-to-air TV networks like the UK’s ITV: they put on programming so that they can show you adverts in between. This has always troubled me about Google: somehow it’s difficult to respect a business that sells advertising. But still, despite this, I find myself liking them.

There are a couple of things about Google. One is that they have a clear focus on always having the best technology. If they stopped innovating right now, it would probably be several years before any competitors produced a search product that was comparable in performance to Google’s. But that won’t happen; their R&D is like some sort of juggernaut. A second thing about Google is that they seem determined to be different. All of this giving away amazing services for free: that didn’t happen very much before they came along. When I first got a Yahoo mail account, it had 2MB of storage: Google started out Gmail giving people storage measured in gigabytes. They’re famous for being one of the only internet companies that wants users to leave its own site as quickly as possible. Their focus on speed has done a lot to change our expectations of the internet; as an early user I remember just expecting everything to take a long time; now, you can use the internet almost like you use native applications on your computer. The Chrome browser is so good that I actually want one of their Chromebooks, even though they’re probably not a particularly good computing solution (at the moment, and given how much they cost. That will change).

I also think they’re sincere about the “don’t be evil” thing. It’s perhaps naive to believe such a claim from a company with tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue, but my sense of it is that the founders really do have their own understanding of what it would be to be evil (largely, compromising the integrity of their search results, but other stuff too) and a belief that it’s good for their business not to be. And that’s the thing: it really does seem to be in Google’s interest to provide an honest, efficient service because the minute they stop doing that, people will start to migrate away.

Finally, despite the total winningness of many of their products, I can’t find any love for Apple. In some ways, their quality is tarnished by their branding: it’s difficult to enjoy using something when you’re being told in such a loud voice how wonderful it is. If you don’t find Apple intuitive, or that “it just works,” it can start to feel as though the problem is you, not the machine. Google, on the other hand, does its best to get the job done, and get out of your way. There seems to be more charm in that.