Is Google the new Microsoft?

The backlash over Google Buzz reveals an even bigger problem: The people behind the people's search engine are deeply out of touch

If you work at Google, your ears are surely burning right now. Google's introduction of its Buzz social media tool this week was possibly the most disastrous product debut in the company's 12-year history.

Almost immediately, Google Buzz got smacked around hard by the blogosphere and veteran journos for making it easy to access information -- like who you're in regular contact with -- that people may not have necessarily wanted the rest of the world to know.

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What Google Buzz does is essentially mash up two similar but distinct services: Twitter and Facebook. Twitter is very open -- anyone can follow or send messages to anyone else -- but very limited in what people can find out about you. Facebook opens the kimono wider, but offers much more control over what strangers can see. If they don't have your OK, they can't see much (assuming you know how to use FB's privacy settings).

Google Buzz combined the openness of Twitter with the "whoo-hoo look at me!" aspects of Facebook. The result? A total face plant.

Nick Carlson at Silicon Alley Insider was particularly scathing in his criticism, noting how Google's casual attitude toward revealing one's Gmail contacts could have nasty real-world consequences.

When you first go into Google Buzz, it automatically sets you up with followers and people to follow. ... The problem is that -- by default -- the people you follow and the people that follow you are made public to anyone who looks at your profile. In other words, before you change any settings in Google Buzz, someone could go into your profile and see the people you email and chat with most ...

In my profession -- where anonymous sourcing is a crucial tool -- the implications of this flaw are terrifying. But it's bad for others too. Two obvious scenarios come to mind:

  • Imagine if a wife discovering that her husband emails and chats with an old girlfriend a ton.
  • Imagine a boss discovers a subordinate emails with executives at a competitor.

(Get the feeling Nick has been chatting up a few old flames lately?)

I spoke with a Googler yesterday about the Buzz backlash. He said they were totally unprepared for it. They had no idea this reaction was coming and were frantically working to respond to it. What seemed blatantly obvious to people who've been through the many Facebook privacy imbroglios was complete news to the Googlefolks.

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Late yesterday afternoon, Google introduced some changes it was making to Buzz via its Official Google Blog. The company didn't really change much -- it just made some of the privacy features more visible, made it easier to block people from following you, and made it easier to manage which followers show up on your public Google Profile.

What it didn't do was change the requirement for you to create a Google Profile in order to use Buzz, or change the default URL for the profile, which is the first half of your Gmail address. That's not good.

(I should also add a correction. In my last post I implied Buzz had crashed my Gmail account, a complaint I also heard from another Buzz user. But I was able to access it from another machine later, so the problem was probably local. Also: There is no truth to the rumor that Google Buzz is being sued for trademark violations by Buzz Lightyear. But I wouldn't be surprised if Yahoo Buzz made a stink.)

The fact is, the more you use Google, the more you put yourself at risk. Not that Google is worse at security than other high-tech companies (Chinese hacks notwithstanding). It's because every service you sign up for is built around your Gmail address. And since Google has effectively made that public via your Google Profile's URL and Google Buzz, all that's left is your password. Once a hacker guesses or social engineers you out of that, Game Over.

It's a single point of weakness that could come back to bite people in a huge way (remember, the Chinese hacked some Gmail accounts). My Google contact said they had some things in the works to beef up Gmail authentication and make it a tougher nut to crack, but couldn't discuss anything specific.

[UPDATE: According to Search Engine Watch, Google may end up splitting Buzz off from Gmail. Stay tuned for further developments.]

I was chatting with my fellow InfoWorld blogger Christina Tynan-Wood this morning, and she brought up what I thought was a highly cogent point. More and more, Google is starting to resemble Microsoft. She wasn't talking about its sudden introduction of me-too products (Google Buzz, hello?) or its insatiable appetite for new markets to conquer or its growing tendency to buy innovative technology companies instead of creating its own stuff.

Her point is that Google is becoming increasingly insular. It's like the world ends at the edge of the Googleplex, and beyond that ... there be monsters. Just like folks on the Redmond campus started to be like back in the early '90s.

This is how it started with Microsoft. First they were fun and it was okay. They lived in their own little geek world and it was funny how they just didn't get how those of us who live out here don't have quite the same issues. Later -- and Google isn't there yet but having seen where this leads, I worry -- MS got almost belligerent in their insular attitude and completely lost touch. That's when everyone got mad at them.

She said this as someone who has great affection for Google, both its people and its products. "It's like they spend all their time inside Google. They really need to get out more," she sighed.

Does Google need to get out more? Are they turning into Microsoft? Post your thoughts below or email me:

This article, "Is Google the new Microsoft?," was originally published at Read more of Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog and follow the latest developments in applications at

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