By Semil Shah
While the tech world is buzzing about the launch and implications of Google’s new social network, Google+, it’s worth noting that Google (GOOG) isn’t just in a war with Facebook, it’s at war with multiple companies across multiple industries. In fact, Google is fighting a multi-front war with a host of tech giants for control over some of the most valuable pieces of real estate in technology. Whether it’s social, mobile, browsing, local, enterprise, or even search, Google is being attacked from all angles. And make no mistake about it, they are fighting back and fighting back, hard. Entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist Ben Horowitz laid the groundwork for this in his post Peacetime CEO / Wartime CEO, saying Larry Page “seems to have determined that Google is moving into war and he clearly intends to be a wartime CEO. This will be a profound change for Google and the entire high-tech industry.” Horowitz is exactly right.
Before I investigate each battle front in the war, it’s important to highlight the fact that perhaps no other tech company right now could withstand such a multifaceted attack, let alone be able to retaliate efficiently. Sure, Apple (AAPL) might get pushed around by Facebook, so it integrated Twitter into iOS5, and sure, Amazon (AMZN) and Apple have their own tussles over digital media and payments, but at the end of the day, Google is in this unique and potentially highly vulnerable position that will test the company’s mettle and ability to not only reinvent itself, but also to perhaps strengthen its core. Let’s take a quick look into the GooglePlex, which may now resemble more of a military complex, plotting out strategies and tactics for this war. Google must battle on at least six fronts simultaneously.
The Browser Front: Users have a choice between Internet Explorer (Microsoft), Firefox (Mozilla), Safari (Apple), and Google’s offering, Chrome. The speculation is that Facebook is interested in a browser, too, since Mozilla co-founder Blake Ross is an employee, but that hasn’t happened yet. More recently, the social browser RockMelt has captured some people's interests, and last week secured $30M in financing, adding Facebook board members Jim Breyer and Marc Andreessen to its board. Andreessen obviously knows a thing or two about browsers. Though most browsers enable users to power their search by Google as an option, Google’s Chrome offering isn’t the lead browser by market share, and it's not even in second place.
The Mobile Front: Apple’s iOS took the mobile world by storm in 2007 with the first iPhone. Then Google’s Android operating system roared alongside it, turning into a freight train of downloads, as Bill Gurley said, only recently to be slowed by Apple’s release of a phone with Verizon (VZ). While Android may have more installs, they don’t have the developer community to build killer apps because the Android marketplace (both for hardware and firmware) is highly fragmented, whereas iOS is about symphonic convergence. All along, there’s been ample speculation about whether Facebook was building its own mobile phone device, or as the company has publicly hinted, how it would integrate social layers into different mobile operating systems and platforms.
The Search Front: Whether we’re on the desktop/laptop, a tablet, or a phone, Google wants to be powering our search, and this is where they dominate, though Microsoft’s Bing has been able to acquire an impressive number of clicks. While everything is fine today, there are some troubling warning signs. On desktops and laptops, people will continue to use a variety of browsers, though they end up spending a lot of time on Facebook, which scares Google because of the trend of people moving slowly from search to discovery. This, however, won’t shift overnight. For mobile devices, it’s trickier. Most iOS users navigate the web through Apple’s own browser, Safari, and can have it search by Google. On Android-powered tablets and phones, Google controls more of the user-experience, including search, navigation, and application integration. While this is going on, users are trying their hand at realtime search on Twitter or BackType, looking for content directly within Quora, or using Blekko’s hashtags to better cut through and sort the web.
The Local Front: When users search for things on Google and click through, Google gets a little cut of that click. It knows how to drive traffic online and be paid handsomely for it. Driving and directing traffic that originates online into the real world, however, is a different story. As Steve Cheney elegantly stated, when we search online for places to go and then end up there in real life, the place itself does not have a clear sense of what drove them there. This is why the Daily Deals space is so red-hot and competitive, as it helps to close this major, valuable loop. If you search for a restaurant via OpenTable and make a reservation, the merchant knows exactly what drove you to the door. That’s why Yelp, which only used to provide reviews, offered the ability to check-in for credit after Foursquare built up a head of steam. The opportunity here is so complex yet fragmented that it drove Google to offer $6B for Groupon (GRPN) just six months ago. In local, Google is competing against Groupon, but also Amazon (which has a stake in LivingSocial), and a host of smaller (Loopt) and forthcoming deals companies will continue to roll out. This is just the beginning.
The Social Front: Yes, again, Google is fighting a war with Facebook. That much is obvious. What’s less obvious is how other social networks have been able to capture bits and pieces of our identities, leaving Google without any information of who we are. Users have been pumping personal content into blogs like Tumblr, networks like LinkedIn, and even asking search-related questions on Quora. Although we may all predominantly search via Google, the company is struggling in the social field. That is why Larry Page stepped in as CEO, why he tied bonuses to social, and why Google+ is their social sword and shield to fight back and capture user data, despite it being late in the game. Strategically speaking, even if Google+ doesn’t hold or catch fire, it will probably cause its rivals to pause for a moment and consider a range of short- and long-term implications.
The Enterprise Front: If you think the browser, mobile, social, local, and search isn’t enough, check out Google’s combatants in enterprise—just some names like Microsoft (MSFT), Oracle (ORCL), IBM, and VMware (VMW), among others. Google’s App Engine could go up against AWS, though that doesn’t seem likely. Google competes with IBM and Oracle on enterprise search (such as OmniFind) and email and work collaboration tools (Lotus). Google’s Chromebooks are seen as a potential entry point into enterprise computing, going up against hardware giants like HP (HPQ), Dell (DELL), and Lenovo. Furthermore, Google may be trying to push Android into the enterprise, which would apply even more pressure on Research in Motion. There’s VMware, which offers Zimbra, PaaS, and presentation tools, to name a few. And, of course, there’s Microsoft, which competes with Google for a wide range of productivity applications. For all of Google’s consumer-facing brands and applications, its strength in enterprise sometimes is underestimated despite the fact that they currently hold many excellent positions.
It’s easy to pile on Google given their size, their wallet, and their global influence and impact. They are the goliath, and have been for many years, and are now facing many challenging tests, all at the same time. And while it’s a fun parlor game to sit around and pontificate about how Google’s reign might be over or how slow GMail loads, the reality is that no other company could compete legitimately on so many different battlefronts against so many different competitors. There’s no way Google can win each battle, and they must know that, but they will win some, and it will be fascinating to see how the company both adapts and stays the course along the way. Google is not going to go down without a fight, and it could take another decade for all of these battles to play out. The company has some of the world’s brightest engineers, a stockpile of cash, and incredible consumer Internet mind share, worldwide. Sit tight.
Photo credit: Flickr/hellosputnik
Editor’s note: Guest contributor Semil Shah is an entrepreneur interested in digital media, consumer internet, and social networks. He is based in Palo Alto and you can follow him on twitter @semilshah.