Head to the Google Finance portal – http://finance.google.co.uk – pop in the name of a company whose share price you want to analyse, and you’ll find yourself looking at a clever Ajax widget that graphs its price. You can zoom the timescale in and out and click on news items for a given day. Being written in Ajax, it looks a bit rustic with its unsmoothed Verdana font, and a bit utilitarian with its blue-underlined links. But so what? It’s simple and effective, neither ugly nor beautiful. Rather reassuring, in fact. Rather Google.
But wait. It’s not an Ajax widget at all. Although the links look like standard HTML and the text looks like it’s rendered in standard web-page fonts, it’s actually an Adobe Flash application. A Flash application that somebody at Google has gone to great lengths to dress in friendly Google clothing.
The more I think about this, the more I dislike the fact, and the more I feel it betrays a horrible possibility. Hold on to your hats while I reveal the truth: Google wants to make money. Open the handbook on making big piles of cash and right there in the first chapter you’ll see a warning that says – and I’m paraphrasing here since I can’t remember the exact quote – that it’s definitely best not to lend the competition legitimacy by being seen to be using its products instead of your own.
Microsoft has read the book. It still tries to coax everyone into installing the Silverlight player – its own Flash competitor – on every visit to microsoft.com. “Experience this in Silverlight” begs the banner, true to the company’s boneheaded insistence that absolutely everything must be an “experience” and that people must never be allowed just to get things done, THEY MUST EXPERIENCE IT. Obviously, most people dismiss the pleading message box immediately. Some Microsoft reps seem genuinely unable to understand why. “It only takes 20 seconds,” they say, “and then you can experience the Silverlight, erm, experience.”
But people are canny. And once they’re bitten, so I’m told, they’re twice shy. It may only take 20 seconds, but it may also force a restart of the browser or the whole PC. They have Flash. Every website uses Flash. They don’t need to install Silverlight.
Or do they? Never one to shy away from performing a service for the public good, I gave it a whirl in Firefox 3, stopwatch in hand. In fairness, the 20-second installation claim isn’t too far wide of the mark. From clicking the Install button to the completion of the process, a mere 30 seconds elapsed. The result? Microsoft’s website in all its Silverlight glory. And what a site it is. It looks exactly like the old one, but with a marginally irritating Flash-style animated banner thingy at the top. Hold the front page!
So, to recap. Microsoft is making a push to dominate the internet-application market with its own competitor to Flash. Google is trying to do the same with Gears and Chrome and all its massive consumer goodwill, plus a system couched in friendly words such as “community” and “open source”, while being cheeky enough to use Flash disguised as the open platforms it likes to champion.
It’s easy to forget, among all the brilliant marketing, that Google is a commercial entity just like Microsoft, unlike the not-for-profit Mozilla foundation that produces Firefox. Google Inc is a publicly listed company and its first duty is to create shareholder value. And that means making money. (To avoid a visit from the lawyers I should also point out that Google has a philanthropic arm: visit www.google.org).