The Google Enigma – Exemplar or Freak?

GoogleNicholas Carr wrote an interesting and fascinating thought piece on Google in the most recent issue of strategy+business.  Nicholas is a renowned author and speaker, and is probably best known for his essay and book Does IT Matter?.

There have been countless articles and discussions about Google’s success over the last few years and it is hard to imagine that Google has been around for less than 10 years.  Since incorporating in September 1998, Google’s growth has been dizzying – even when looking at just the last couple of years when revenues have grown from than $500mm in 2002 to over $10.5 billion in 2006.  And that is before mentioning its astronomic market value of more than $216 billion.  People continue to argue what industry or business category to place Google.  Is it a software company, advertising agency, search company, telephone company, publisher, processor, movie studio or an entirely new kind of business?

Nicholas simplifies Google’s business model as follows: “Google brokers and publishes advertisements through digital media. More than 99 percent of its sales have come from the fees it charges advertisers for using its network to get their messages out on the Internet.”  Nearly everything Google does is aimed at “reducing the cost and expanding the scope of Internet use”.

But is it a business model or innovation program to follow? Nicholas says that executives have to be cautious before jumping on Google’s bandwagon.  First, Google is still a young company and has not been tested by adversity or a complete business cycle.  An interesting viewpoint is that it is not clear if Google’s management and innovation approaches are a cause or result of its success.  Second, Google’s model may not apply to other companies because it is so different.

Can we learn from Google’s approach to innovation? Nicholas says “yes and no”.  Most of Google’s success and profits can be traced to three innovations: changing the way search engines rank and present results, perfecting the process of letting advertisers bid on key words and the design of its parallel-processing computer system which incorporates hundreds of thousands of computers.  These innovations predate the now famous Google innovation process and provides the company with advantages and freedoms not enjoyed by most other companies.  For example, Google can hire the best software engineers and provide them with perks and salaries to keep them happy.  Plus, Google has the ability to throw more resources at innovation than other companies.  Google also organizes product development into small teams with considerable freedom and allows engineers to devote 20% of their time to pet projects with little oversight.

Nicholas points out that Google, like all smart and consistently profitable companies, exhibit the same three qualities:

  1. Hire talented people and give them room to excel
  2. Measure progress and results rigorously
  3. Be disciplined in work and in spending

In conclusion, Nicholas ends with this lesson – “Beware the inevitable hype about how the latest business trend or the newest overnight success “changes everything.” Yes, markets and technology change, sometimes with devastating speed, but through the turmoil, the underpinnings of business success remain fairly stable”

For the complete story, read the entire article here.

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One Laptop Per Child – Give One and Get One Program

Christmas started early in the Humbarger household today when I bought my first present of the 2007 Christmas season – a new XO computer.

XO ComputerActually, I bought 2 computers.  One for me (and my 7-year-old son) and one for a child in a developing nation under a new program from the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

The mission of One Laptop Per Child or OLPC is to “empower the children of developing countries to learn by providing one connected laptop to every school-age child. In order to accomplish our goal, we need people who believe in what we’re doing and want to help make education for the world’s children a priority, not a privilege.”

OLPC is the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, founding director of the MIT Media Laboratory. The initiative, which provides fully loaded laptops to children for $200, kicked off in 2005 at the World Economic Forum.  Negroponte’s vision is finally coming to fruition, and the Give One Get One program is a way to let ordinary citizens participate in this worthwhile initiative.

The OLPC “Give One Get One” program started today and runs through November 26th.  For a donation of $400, anyone in the United States or Canada can purchase a laptop for a student in a developing nation and another laptop will be sent to the child of your choice.  This is the first time that the laptops have been offered to the general public and the laptops may be delivered in time for Christmas – but no promises.

I can’t wait for my new XO to arrive, and I can’t wait for my other laptop to land in the hands of some future Bill Gates, Nicholas Negroponte, Mozart or someone else who is going to change the world – or just be a better educated citizen of this world.  I hope others are inspired by this program to help children in developing countries have the same technology benefits that our children have and make education a priority for all.

Why Prototype?

I ran across an interesting presentation (”Sketching in Code: Using Prototypes to Visualize Interactions“) that David Vreba, Director of Technology at Adaptive Path, delivered at the UXWeek conference in August.

In particular, two slides in David’s presentation with the titles “Why Prototype?” caught my attention.  These slides sum up in a nutshell why prototyping is so important:

  • Visualize your requirements – save a lot of time and effort by not creating so many paper-based requirements that are difficult to review
  • Get to market faster – generate a lot of cash by getting a better product to market faster.

Why PrototypeWhy Prototype

Effective prototyping can reduce cycle times throughout the entire software development lifecycle.

David also presented 5 key reasons to prototype including:

  1. See problems more clearly
  2. See some problems at all
  3. Gain buy in from stakeholders
  4. Foster collaboration
  5. Help everybody understand what is possible

I think #2, “see some problems at all“, is one of the more overlooked reasons to prototype.  In many cases, stakeholders may not even be aware of problems with usability, flow and design until you actually show them what you had in mind.  This is because reams of text-based requirements written down on paper do not come close to showing someone what you meant.

Point #4 – “foster collaboration” – is probably the least expected side benefit of prototyping.  Without even knowing it, sharing a prototype gets groups talking that may have never talked in the past.  This then facilitates better communication throughout the rest of the project and has carryover benefits into the next project and beyond.

Most people need to visualize something and even better try something to truly understand it.  And it is much better to show them early in a prototyping phase than near the end of the development lifecycle when the final product is almost complete.

You can learn more about David Vreba’s presentation, and download the slides and audio at this link.

OpenSocial Primer – Because the Web is Better When It’s Social

Google (and others) made a huge splash on October 31st with their announcement about the new OpenSocial alliance. This blog post is a compilation of insights and links to what some of the leading voices are saying about OpenSocial.

What is OpenSocial? Essentially, OpenSocial provides the ability for companies to extend their website experiences to existing communities on popular social networks using mini-applications. The official word according to Google is that “OpenSocial provides a common set of APIs for social applications across multiple websites. With standard JavaScript and HTML, developers can create apps that access a social network’s friends and update feeds.”

It is also important to note that OpenSocial is not “GoogleSocial”. Most of the leading social networks including MySpace, Bebo, SixApart, Orkut, Salesforce.com, LinkedIn, Ning, Plaxo, Friendster, Oracle and others have signed on to the OpenSocial alliance. The notable exception currently is that Facebook has not officially joined yet.

Who cares and why? Web strategists, developers, marketers, user experience professionals and others who define and design websites will be impacted.

What are the challenges? First of all, the announcement was just made 2 days ago, so everything surrounding the announcement and alliance is all pretty new. According to Web Strategist and Forrester analyst Jerimiah Owyang, some of the other challenges include: open data opens risks, inconsistencies in application behaviors, cultural differences, and how will the alliance evolve.

Bottom Line – My conclusion is that is important to be familiar with OpenSocial as everyone will be affected whether as a consumer of social applications or more directly in your business. Personally, I am excited about possible new features and capabilities I could be seeing soon in my favorite applications. However, it will take some time for things to shake out and for developers to start exploiting the new APIs. So, stay tuned, keep your ear to the ground and be patient for now.

What are your thoughts?

Additional Information – Here are some other links to explore to learn more:

Finally, here is a the first “Campfire” video from Google that explains what OpenSocial and shows how it will work: