On Nov. 6, I published two pieces on Web annotation startup Reframe It, whose leadership is upset because they feel Google Sidewiki comes perilously close to emulating Reframe It's technology.
This issue appears in an interesting light juxtaposed with Google CEO Eric Schmidt's comments to Neil Cavuto of Fox Business News Nov. 5. Cavuto said people compare Google to Microsoft and IBM and other behemoths that got cocky, and suggested that Facebook and Twitter are the new hot companies, not Google. Here's the interview:
Note early on how Schmidt said:
"The general question of leadership and sort of, 'Are you the next Microsoft?' is really a function of attitude. The companies that you mentioned made mistakes years ago that hopefully we're not making. Hopefully, the mistakes that we're making now won't put us in those kinds of predicaments, that our sensitivity toward end users, that our focus on consumers, our focuses on bringing costs down not up, our focusing on letting people get out and take their information with them is a much better model for the information age than these older models."
Google may be sensitive to end users, but what about startups, which Google can lift up or crush with its practices?
Sure, Google doesn't hold a financial gun to anyone's head, locking a company in to Microsoft-esque licenses. But when the leading search company pairs a Web annotation service with its leading search engine, what sort of success can Reframe It, Diigo or any other startup cultivate? Not much, I reckon.
Honestly, would you use a stand-alone Web annotation service when you could use one that is paired with a search engine, a place where more people are bound to come to see your comments and build on the annotation of Web pages?
Okay, so you're guessing this is the point where I claim that Google copied Reframe It and is therefore evil. Nope. I'll let the courts of public opinion (and eventually, law) dissect that.
But I will say as much as Google takes pains not to be evil, it certainly does things that hurt others, even if it is unintentional. When I drive somewhere, I don't set out to squash bugs, but they manage to coat my windshield with their juice.
I suggested to Reframe It CEO Bobby Fishkin that Google, armed with its large legal team, could have gotten so large that it steamrolls smaller tech companies without worrying about it. Okay, so that was what lawyers would object to as "leading the witness," but Fishkin said:
"That was Microsoft's playbook."
How do the kids say it? Oh, snap!
Google dips its ladle into so many Internet wells these days that it can make it hard or impossible for others to flourish. You could argue that Google is at the head of a long tail, and that others ride those coattails to success, but you could also argue that the mere presence of Google in some markets makes them untenable for others.
So, is Google evil? It certainly depends on who you ask. Ask Reframe It. Of course, if Reframe It's technology has been infringed upon, Google will be seen as evil. If not, it's still seen as a company squeezing smaller guys. Either way, it can't win.
Even if Reframe It can't make a case against Google based on law, it could serve as a dark reminder of how Google is a Web whale, swallowing startups like so much plankton in the Internet sea.