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February 5, 2006
David Warsh, Proprietor


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The Annals of Evil: From One Extreme to the Other, with Pretty Good Results

That didn’t take long. After a decade of astonishing growth — from zero to $10 billion annual revenues in just ten years — Google has begun to do a little bit of evil in the world. That is, the idyllic situation described by CEO Eric Schmidt a couple of years ago obtains no longer. Google has acquired some real enemies.

The World Association of Newspapers (WAN), for example.  Representing 18,000 newspapers and 73 national newspaper associations, WAN last week announced a campaign to persuade European Union commissioners to crack down on Google’s search engine news service.  A spokesman said, “We’re dealing here with basic theft.”

The American Association of Publishers, for another. They went to court last fall to stop Google’s plan to create an online library by digitizing the entire book collections of three major universities (Stanford, Harvard and the University of Michigan) as well as the public domain works of Oxford University and the New York Public Library. “Google is seeking to make millions of dollars by freeloading on the talent and property of authors and publishers,” said Pat Schroeder, former Congresswoman and president of AAP.

Or The Author’s Guild, for that matter. Their lawsuit alleging “massive copyright infringement” was filed last summer.

All these issues have to do with the intricate social choice that we call intellectual property. They’ll now be slowly and expensively ventilated in adversarial proceedings. And, in the end, the rules will be refined, if not necessarily improved.

Before the story gets going, therefore, it makes sense to go back over the technological advances and corresponding changes in industrial organization that are at the heart of the lawsuits, beginning with the most obvious question.

What is Google?  How does it work?  And what does that famous motto — “Don’t Be Evil” — actually mean?

The single most important thing to understand about Google is that its famous search engine is a specimen of middleware. Often simply defined as the “/” in client/server architecture, middleware programs are those that form a mediating software layer between operating systems and myriad server-based applications.

Middleware programs are ubiquitous in the nascent “age of the cloud” – tens of millions of computers linked together around the world in a network so decentralized with respect to the uses to which its data can be put as to intuitively resemble water vapor.  But the term is sufficiently unfamiliar that it doesn’t appear in either of two fine (and very different) books about Google, one by Washington Post reporter David Vise, the other by former magazine editor (Wired and The Industry Standard) John Battelle.

The middleware concept did appear, however — and with devastating effect — in the epic US government antitrust suit against Microsoft. And that action is the key to understanding all the rest. For the last middleware company to become famous was Netscape, the firm that in the early 1990s popularized the Web browser as the “next new thing.”

And it was when Microsoft realized that, by permitting the development of server-based PC applications that would be universally-available, the Netscape browser had the potential to destroy its Windows monopoly on computer operating systems (to “commoditize” its operating systems, the way its operating systems had become more important than the machinery that they ran), that Microsoft moved to crush Netscape and substituted a browser of its own devising.

That brought the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department down upon Microsoft with alacrity. In an epic trial, a Federal judge found the company guilty of anti-competitive behavior and ordered it broken up — before, in a highly-charged political atmosphere, an appellate court reversed his order and the newly-inaugurated Bush administration quietly withdrew the demand.

Thus it was in the 1990s that Microsoft came to be known, far beyond the confines of Silicon Valley, as “the evil empire.” The age-old conceit of bottom-up democratic participation vs. top-down totalitarian control received a pop-culture boost in the 1970s from the movie “Star Wars.” The phrase itself was employed in 1983 by US President Ronald to describe the Soviet Union.  Hackers soon appropriated it to describe Microsoft’s business practices.

In the case of software, “evil” in this view consisted primarily of the use of tight controls and strong-arm methods  — everything from shrink-wrap to deep pockets (“I can buy 20 percent of you or I can buy all of you or I can go into this business myself and bury you”) to the highly-developed tactic of building out the Windows platform as rapidly as possible — to subdue competitors as they emerged, including Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect and Netscape, and thereby maintain control of  the computer desktop.

Indeed, Microsoft used every trick in the book (and invented some new ones) in order to extend its reach and collect a rent on its aggressively-defined intellectual property. (This standardization wasn’t all bad, of course: it meant that developers at least knew where they stood. They quickly devised a staggering array of new applications for computers.)

And it was in these circumstances, too, that Sergey Brin and Larry Page met as Stanford undergraduates, started Google, and adopted “Don’t be evil” as their motto. These two men, whose history is fully as interesting that of Bill Gates, are at the center of both Vise’s and Battelle’s books.

Both are the children of university professors. The mothers of both were computing and technology professionals as well. Brin’s parents emigrated from the former Soviet Union with a Jackson-Vanik visa in 1979, when he was six. Page, also born in 1973, grew up in Lansing, Michigan.  Both were immersed not just in computer technology from an early age, but in the culture of science, with its emphasis on the principle of disinterestedness and the etiquette of citation rather than on the patent and the royalty stream.

In these circumstances, the motto “Don’t be evil” translated fairly precisely into the injunction, “Don’t be like Microsoft.”  Where Microsoft charges for its software, Google gave its away. Where Microsoft sells software for PCs (as Netscape had hoped to do for  servers), Google makes its money offering services and selling advertising. Where Microsoft remains essentially a publishing company, Google specializes in database management through its awesome collection of servers.

As the veteran analyst Tim O’Reilly puts it, in an especially lucid description of the new business models on the site of his Sebastopol, California publishing company, “This time, though, the clash isn’t between a platform and an application, but between two platforms, each with a radically different business model: On the one side, a single software provider, whose massive installed base and tightly integrated operating system and APIs give control over the programming paradigm; on the other, a system without an owner, tied together by a set of protocols, open standards and agreements for cooperation….

“Windows was a brilliant solution to the problems of the early PC era. It leveled the playing field for application developers, solving a host of problems that had previously bedeviled the industry. But a single monolithic approach, controlled by a single vendor, is no longer a solution, it’s a problem. Communications-oriented systems, as the internet-as-platform most certainly is, require interoperability.”

The Internet, in other words, has already triumphed over the old Microsoft Windows system, thanks to middleware of many different sorts (eBay, Amazon, Napster and the Apache software that runs most Internet servers are middleware, too). Open source operating systems for computers, such as Linux and Unix will do the rest. That is what all the excitement about Web 2.0 and Internet2 is about. Not that Microsoft is going to disappear, or even become a shrinking violet.  But never again will the company be the technology’s dominant force.  Just as it supplanted IBM Corp. in the 1980s, Microsoft itself is being surpassed.

For all the differences between the Google ethos and that of Microsoft — and they are very great — the common denominator between Brin, Page and Gates is a certain arrogance.  It is a natural concomitant, perhaps, of becoming the richest men in the world in one’s 30s.

Microsoft took a position at one extreme of the spectrum of possible protections of property rights. Google has taken the other end of the argument. Gates thinks that information should be expensive, because it is costly to create. (Early in his career he fulminated against software-sharing in a famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists.”)

Brin and Page, on the other hand, think that information should be free, or nearly so, since, once it has been created, sharing it costs almost nothing. They aim, they say, to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” and to hell with property rights. (Publishers assert that Google has been remarkable for its unwillingness to negotiate requests for reasonable copyright safeguards.)

It is an old truth that we become what we despise. Editorialists at The Financial Times suggested last week that it may be time for a new mantra at Google:  Don’t be arrogant. Here’s slightly different idea: to acquire a little humility, Brin and Page should start a newspaper of their own, or maybe several newspapers, instead of skimming the cream off the front pages of all the others. As Microsoft discovered with its high-end webzine Slate, they will find that competing successfully the news business is harder than it looks.

For all its high-spirited good works — organizing protein-folding analyses, private space races, micro-lending in Bangladesh — Google to this point has made money by taking advantage of long-standing activities of many disparate communities previously organized to turn information into a reasonable approximation of truth. Now it is time for the search engineers to return the favor — to recognize the legitimate claims of professional societies, research universities, authors, publishers, newspapers on whose success their work is based.

No less an authority than Sergey’s mother, Eugenia Brin, wants her mogul son to complete his Ph.D. (according to Washington Post Reporter Vise). She is right. It is time for Google to stop talking about information and start thinking about the economics of knowledge.

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