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Googling Netscape

The Google stock is getting hurt in after hours trading as the company’s earnings disappointed Wall Street. It was to be expected but now is the time for executives at Google to look at history and, hopefully, not repeat it. The history I am talking about, in particular, is that of a company that was in a similar position about a decade ago: Netscape.

Before I go any further in this, I want to have a huge disclaimer: I’m a pretty big fan of some Google products. One can see Google ads running on this site (I’m an AdSense user) and a portion of my traffic gets here thanks to Google’s search engine. i’m also a big user of the search engine, I have a Gmail account (although it is not my primary email system) and I use Google Maps and Google News often. I’ve played with the search API in the past and, for the most part, I’ve been happy with my overall Google experience. However, I worry that the company is heading in the wrong direction and I want to ensure they remain a viable player as they have re-ignited investments in the search space, which has benefited all users on the Internet. However, I fear that, if they are not careful, they could suffer a fate similar to that of Netscape, which popularized web browsing and ended up being gobbled up by AOL, where it is now a shadow of its former self.

That said, let’s look at some of the disturbing similarities.

Market Shares are no guarantee

In the early days of the commercial Internet (let’s say 1996), Netscape was a very successful company. It had beaten every Wall Street expectation and completed a stock offering that had captured the imagination of the general public. The Netscape management graced the covers of most magazines in America and the little browser that could (then in version 2.0) had captured an impressive 75+ percent of the market. Netscape had also introduced its own line of web servers, with a proprietary language called LiveWire, which allowed to create more dynamic applications. The company was also offering a web page development tool, and struck partnerships with many companies to integrate their audio and video components with the browser.

Microsoft had come out with Windows 95, which included a browser (Internet Explorer) which they had licensed from an outside source (NCSA, the place where Marc Andreesen had worked prior to Netscape and the browser was Mosaic, an early web browser Marc had been involved with). The world had mostly laughed at the pitiful version 1.0 offering from Redmond. It was simply a bad product, which did not get much redemption with version 2.0.

Microsoft on the Offensive

The folks at Netscape were feeling pretty smug. After all, they dominated the browser market, had managed to get a way to sell server products and comments about the upcoming irrelevance of Microsoft started making the rounds. But the giant was awake and the clouds over Redmond only covered a flurry of activity. By the time IE 3.0 was released, most people had written Microsoft off. If they couldn’t get as simple a piece of code as a browser to catch up, how could they have a chance to survive.

Netscape had come out with version 3.0 and it was good, if a little bloated from the everything but the kitchen sink approach they were taking. Netscape was now offering an Internet suite that included a browser, a mail client, a newsreader client, an IRC client, some groupware capabilities, etc, etc… There was no way Microsoft could catch up.

Netscape Navigator 4 came out and it was good. It was running Java applets, it could do DHTML, etc.. Basically people liked it and didn’t see a reason to switch…

But Microsoft released IE 4.0 and it was better than people expected. it matched the Netscape browser feature for feature and threw in a few things. One of the people in charge of that development was a guy by the name of Yusuf Medhi, who now happens to be the head of MSN.

While Microsoft had fired a major shot with that new browser, everyone expected that all that would change again when Netscape 5 would come out.

Netscape 5 never came out. In fact, Microsoft release IE 5.0 and started gaining market shares (stealing them from Netscape). Netscape seemed to be trapped in its own legacy and had problem getting a new product out. Microsoft release IE 5.5 and Netscape was working on a new rewrite of their product.

Finally, Netscape 6 came out, conveniently skipping a version. Was it the answer to Microsoft that all had hoped? Not quite and by that point it was too late.

Netscape never recovered and now lives as a shadow of its former self. Microsoft put out a 6.0 version of their browser, cleaning up some of the last parts of the markets they wanted and then went to sleep, in terms of browser, until the recent competitive threat of Firefox reared its head, eating up some of their hard earned market shares.

So what went wrong? The answer is complex but I believe that a mix of Hubris (we can beat Microsoft, we have a huge market share) combined with some sloppy releases, the development of a bit of a monoculture (we set the agenda, the industry will follow), an unwillingness to deal with massive competitive threats, a loss of focus on core assets, and a media world that loves to take down the companies they’ve built up all added up.

How does this apply to Google?

For starters, it is clear that massive market shares are no guarantee of success. Google currently holds around 60 percent of the search market, which is good but is also a reason for concern as it is more likely that this share will go down than it is that it will go up.

More worrisome, however, is the development of the Google monoculture. Much of what is going on at Google is happening with little involvement and input from the community. This is where Microsoft generally starts striking. Say what you want about the Redmond giant, they know how to listen and how to take brutal feedback and turn it into decent product. Microsoft is not known for great products but it is known for decent ones. Last week, Microsoft organized Search Champs, gathering a bunch of smart people from the industry in a room and having them talk to them. I was there and was surprised by how focused they are on winning this one. It is the kind of focus I have not seen come from them since the browser wars.

If it wants to survive, Google needs to do something similar. Throwing a product out to the world with the world beta on it is not a feedback loop. Sitting down with users, developers, thought leaders is. The feedback is not always good but it helps improve the product, which is how one wins this war. Furthermore, the goodwill generated by getting people invested in its products and their success allows a company to develop a strong following from a small group of dedicated users, who then serves as advocates in the marketplace. They can have an impact in changing opinion and not involving them can be dangerous.

Of those people, developers tend to be the more finicky. Alas, the success of many platforms on the Internet depends on developers. As developers go, so tend the marketplace because developers tend to be early adopters. Developers were the first people to switch from Yahoo to Altavista. They were the first group to switch from Altavista to Google. Where will they go next? Is it guaranteed that they will stay with Google (however, here is an interesting case, as developers tend to have a bias against Microsoft. The corollary of this is that Microsoft has to offer something that is radically better in order to make gains in the developer world). A good way for Google to mend some of the rift with the development community would be to support RSS along with ATOM as a syndication format. At the current time, Google is the only major search engine without native RSS support.

Another area to watch out for is the loss of focus. Could someone at Google please explain to me how the Google pack, Google WiFi, Google IM or the Google web accelerator fit Google’s mission (to organize the world’s information). How does owning a radio advertising business (something they acquired recently) fit in that model? It seems that Google is trying to do a lot of things in a lot of areas. I’m sure they’re all interesting things but what does that do to the core search assets on which the business was build (or is it that search is just a side business and Google’s mission is really about advertising?) There has been much discussion in the search world about the relevancy of results in the Google search engine suffering from some level of degradation. As always, expectations are high and any decrease (or lack of improvement) in the quality of the search index will be seen as a loss of focus.

Following the Netscape sloppy release, Google also has to worry about better testing before putting products out. Its recent stumbles with the release of Google NewsReader and Google Analytics showed the world products that were not fully ready for market release. The market acceptance for the word beta goes only so far and Google may suffer some reputational damage if it continues along a curve or release first and fix it later (this, however, is not necessarily a standalone cause for failure, as we’ve learned from the release of many Microsoft products that needed their own round of stabilization)

Last but not least is the burning glare of the media world and of Wall Street. As can be seen now that lofty (and, one could add, unrealistic) expectations could not be met, punishment (in the form of a declining stock price) is coming. Similarly, the press is getting more critical. This is part of a normal cycle: a company is hyped up and then taken down. These are just fads (ask your friends at Yahoo!, who have managed to go through the whole cycle and are starting to go back through a build-up phase now).

And, as a postcript, take the advice of pundits like myself with a grain of salt. There are lessons to be learned but I can’t guarantee that these are the right ones to learn. However, what is certain is that Google needs to remain a viable player in search if for no other reason than to keep companies like Microsoft honest. As we’ve seen in the browser wars, once a company wins, it tends to slow down on the innovation front and search is still so young a field that it needs major progress on the innovation front.

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