Google Is a "Complete Failure" in the Future of High Tech

Last Updated Oct 13, 2011 7:26 PM EDT

Can you imagine what life must be like for Google (GOOG) engineer Steve Yegge at the moment? He posted something critical of Google+ on his own Google+ profile page intending it just for his colleagues at Google. But he mistakenly made it public. Actually, that's a bit of an understatement; after all, it was a 4,500 word critique. (You can read the entire post here.)

The gist of his critique: Google has exhibited a "complete failure" to understand how to create platforms that let third parties easily connect to the system and contribute to its success. This is the very ability that has made Facebook such a success in social networks.

Instead, Google builds products that are supposed to satisfy customers. But Yegge's critique actually points at a larger shift going on in the tech world: the shift from a product orientation to a platform one, arguably the biggest change since the invention of the personal computer.

The oldest new thing in tech
Platforms have been common in high tech for decades, but only in limited ways. Software developers wrote code that depended on an operating system like Windows or Mac OS X. Platforms helped grow IBM, Microsoft (MSFT), and Apple (AAPL). Whether the company in question built hardware as well or not, it understood that success came from offering a platform that let other people do the things they needed to do.

But most products either stood on their own (ie: consumer electronics) or, like software, ran on a platform while remaining independent. Those days are quickly vanishing.

Popular concept
High tech is moving to a connected business model. That means far more than using the Internet. It means pulling together all the resources necessary to satisfy the customer. No single company can even approach that level of completeness.

Cloud computing and software provides as a subscription service offering are only the most obvious examples. The main thrust is that any technology product has to make what it does available to customers in the ways they need it.

Some of the more successful companies in the industry are those that have built strong platforms. Apple may wall its garden, but it also has a lot of gates so third parties can come in and add on to what it has built. Facebook? Companies like Zynga have parlayed what it could offer -- an audience and delivery system -- into robust business. Amazon offers a massive platform. So does Microsoft. Even automobiles are fast becoming platforms for GPS units, smartphones, streamed media, and other products and services.

Why isn't Google on the list? Even though it offers some aspects of a platform through Google Apps and its Chrome browser, and even though it does have the mobile platform Android (which it acquired), the company is generally poor at offering critical programming interfaces, Yegge says:

Our Google+ team took a look at the aftermarket and said: "Gosh, it looks like we need some games. Let's go contract someone to, um, write some games for us." Do you begin to see how incredibly wrong that thinking is now? The problem is that we are trying to predict what people want and deliver it for them.

You can't do that. Not really. Not reliably. There have been precious few people in the world, over the entire history of computing, who have been able to do it reliably. Steve Jobs was one of them. We don't have a Steve Jobs here. I'm sorry, but we don't.

Marketing meat
That last observation is brilliant. Not only does no company have the resources to provide everything customers need, but no company could successful predict everything customers might actually want. Even Steve Jobs, as insightful as he was, couldn't predict everything customers might want.

This is not just an idea for big companies. Virtually any tech product should be ready to cooperate with others to keep customers tied to them. If not, they ask customers to inconvenience themselves, working with potentially many walled environments when all those customers want is to keep things working smoothly without disruption.

Although Yegge primarily focused on technical considerations, he summarized the marketing aspect well: "A product is useless without a platform, or more precisely and accurately, a platform-less product will always be replaced by an equivalent platform-ized product."

That's because the product with a platform offers value that more features can't counterweight. It's impossible to add enough bells and whistles to balance the rest of the connected world. No one is that productive and inventive.

A move to providing and connecting to platforms is a strategic shift in how high tech companies must think to ultimately succeed, particularly if they have ambitions to one day be large and dominant in their areas.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.