James Whittaker: “Why I left Google”

James Whittaker:

It turns out that there was one place where the Google innovation machine faltered and that one place mattered a lot: competing with Facebook. Informal efforts produced a couple of antisocial dogs in Wave and Buzz. Orkut never caught on outside Brazil. Like the proverbial hare confident enough in its lead to risk a brief nap, Google awoke from its social dreaming to find its front runner status in ads threatened.

Google could still put ads in front of more people than Facebook, but Facebook knows so much more about those people. Advertisers and publishers cherish this kind of personal information, so much so that they are willing to put the Facebook brand before their own. Exhibit A: www.facebook.com/nike, a company with the power and clout of Nike putting their own brand after Facebook’s? No company has ever done that for Google and Google took it personally.

What I find most interesting about this is that Google never seemed interested in adding additional revenue streams. Most of their products that came after Search and Ads were a “fun 20%” creation that they offered up for free, and then continued to rely on advertising.

Compare this to Apple who, after Jobs returned, aimed to protect their business by killing the products that weren’t profitable, and creating a selection of high-profile products that were. Facebook is a big threat to Google as it interferes with Google’s (effectively) sole source of revenue. Who or what is threatening Apple as a business? No one, really. Android could threaten the iPhone, but then Macs, (previously) iPods and (now) iPads remain. Windows PC’s have always threatened the Mac, but the Mac survived and has been growing faster than the PC industry for years. And as for the iPad, no tablet seems likely to pose a threat.

There is also a lesson here for tech startups: many aim to grow to a critical mass of users while offering their services or app for free, hoping to cash in via advertising eventually. But many startups fail to get enough momentum to become profitable on advertising alone, leading to many failures and necessary exits. Furthermore, Google’s leading example is perhaps not even a great one to follow too closely.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how things pan out between Google, Facebook and Apple in the coming years.