2010: The year Google fell to earth

A feeble China protest, Wi-Fi spying, the Nexus One, Google TV, and more all add up to one big fail for the search giant in 2010

Remember when Google could do no wrong? Those days now feel like ancient history.

I think 2010 will be remembered for a handful of really big stories, including the rise of tablets, the dominance of Facebook, and the emergence of a fifth column of Web troublemakers who can no longer be ignored, from Anonymous/4chan to WikiLeaks.

[ Along with Google Wave, Cringely mourns (or not) the passing of other former Web stalwarts over the last year in "RIP, AltaVista and Google Wave; we hardly knew ye." | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

But it will also be remembered as the year Google proved that not only did it have feet of clay, it had also stepped into something really nasty -- more than once.

Consider if you will the following examples:

China. Remember that principled stand Google took on China back in January? About how it would have to "review the feasibility of [its] business operations in China" after Chinese agents hacked into its accounts, and how it refused to do business with repressive regimes that censor search results? Fast-forward to July, when Google announced, "We are very pleased that the government has renewed our ICP license and we look forward to continuing to provide web search and local products to our users in China." Turned out that those business operations were more feasible than originally thought. In fact, Google came up with 1.3 billion reasons why Chinese censorship wasn't so bad after all.

The Nexus One. Screw the telecoms and intercourse the iPhone. Google was going to both create a groovier and completely open smartphone and kill the telecom's stranglehold over the handset market by selling the Nexus One direct to consumers. The problem? Google had no clue how to sell direct to consumers. In fact, the company was kind of lousy at it. Within six months, Google's Nexus One store was taking a dirt nap. It hasn't been missed.

Wi-Fi spying. Google would never, ever spy on its customers. Certainly the Googlers believed that. Then it turns out Google Street View vans were slurping up data off open Wi-Fi networks all around the world. Oops. The fallout from that one -- class-action suits, governmental inquiries, international sanctions, and the like -- is still coming. The worst part: Google was doing this without even realizing it. What other data is Google hoovering up that it -- and no one else -- yet realizes?

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