Douwe Osinga's Blog: If Google is the anti-Microsoft and Facebook is the anti-Google...

Friday, May 13, 2011

Karl Marx' Dialectical Materialism might have gone somewhat out of fashion, but in this blog post I'd like to make the case that it is more or less applicable to the evolution of tech companies. Marx took from Hegel that the internal tensions in an idea lead to an opposite idea, but applied it to the material world. So the ancient society gives way to its opposite, feudalism, which turns into its opposite, capitalism, which will turn into its opposite, socialism.

Big Blue was the first king of the then called computer industry. From the first commercial computers in the fifties all the way through their wildly successful series 360, IBM successful beyond compare. IBM dominated the industry to such an extent that they called the other computer companies the 7 dwarfs. IBM was a consensus oriented, management driven company who saw hardware as its true product. It wasn't until the PC revolution arrived in full that a new contender for the crown stepped up.

Microsoft came into its own as IBMs sidekick in that revolution, providing the Operating System for the IBM PC, but by providing the MS-DOS also to the clone builders, Microsoft was at the same time responsible for destroying IBM's supremacy in the PC world. Microsoft was the exact opposite of IBM: a market driven software company that would do whatever to win. IBM's natural base was the mainframe, Microsoft's mantra a PC on every desk. And no later than OS/2's humiliating failure to gain traction against Windows 95, it was clear that tech had a new king.

And what a king it was. Microsofts dominance seemed so complete and their policies so aggressive that in May 1998 the US Department of Justice and 20 US States filed a suit for abuse of monopoly, almost exactly 8 months after started serving traffic.
Google again was the anti-Microsoft. Engineering driven, rather than market driven, with "don't be evil" as its slogan. Google delivered its products as ad supported free web services, rather than selling installable software for PCs. By the summer of 2005, it was clear that even though Google still had a long way to overtake Microsoft in profits let alone turnover, Google was the new center of gravity for technology.

Facebook and beyond
Many have suggested Facebook is the new king in waiting. Fittingly, Facebook started up in the valley just around the time when Google prepared for IPO. Facebook is an anti-Google company; where Google's engineers are computer scientisty who want to solve hard problems and think that serious software is written in serious languages like C++ and maybe Java, Facebook's hackers will do whatever makes things work and think PHP works just fine. Google is about the algorithm and doesn't really get social.

The genetics of companies
Then again, Google is also the anti-Yahoo, focussing on ranking vs hand optimized, trying to deliver one answer quickly and to get the user somewhere else as quickly as possible, rather than offering everything the user might need. And Twitter is the anti-Facebook.

Analysts often talk about the DNA of companies; if so then founders and early employees are the carriers of that DNA. They bring ideas of how a company should run from practices they admire or hate in existing companies, especially if they've worked for those companies. In the early days of the company the culture is formed by merging the parent genes and often flipping bits. This company DNA in turn is imprinted on new employees. When these employees leave to start new companies, the cycle is completed.


In my new venture we build travel guides for mobile devices. Since we have two ex-googlers on board it shouldn't surprise anybody we derive some of our DNA from Mountain View:
  • We think information is something to be organized, not owned. So our travel guides are built automatically out of content that is available under an open license. Once we get to the point where our users can correct our data, we'll make every attempt to share those corrections back with the community.
  • We think that computers are better at ranking than humans even if they're editors. Like a friend remarked: Triposo tries to do to Lonely Planet what Google did to Yahoo.
  • Free lunch! Well, we haven't really established that, but I like it. In fact we had free lunches at Oberon in Amsterdam before Google was founded.
Some genes of course have flipped and make us an anti-Google of sorts:
  • Google's products are web services that might work on mobile devices. Our travel guides are mobile apps that work even better if there is an internet connection.
  • We fear overengineering as a thread to agility, while Google tends to think that real solutions come with many layers.
  • Google doesn't talk about products that haven't launched yet. We believe that talking to outsiders about a good idea can make it great.
It's going to be interesting to see how things will develop.