An Open Letter to Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt

December 20, 2010

[NOTE: This is my last post of 2010. I'll be back in early January. If you're new here, be sure to read the first three posts. Happy new year to all.]

Dear Sergey, Larry, and Eric,

I’m concerned, as I’m sure you are, about the impact Facebook is having on the web in general and on Google in particular. Facebook is sucking in not just people, but companies at an alarming rate. More and more companies are making their primary presence at Facebook.com, so they can tailor the visitors’ experience to their profiles and know more about them as prospects. Soon, you’ll be able to buy anything right inside of Facebook. It’s like we are at day 29 of a 30 day algae doubling rate – one more day and the pond will be covered.

Facebook’s plan is clear. Facebook will soon go from nice-to-have to need-to-have. This plan – to be more relevant and useful – is helping them hire a lot of sharp people who believe in that mission. All the Android apps and all the free wifi at 30,000 feet won’t stop the black hole from sucking in more of your best talent. It’s like this: Facebook is trying to get everyone to land and live on planet Facebook, and you’re trying to get people to enjoy the entire universe by making space travel easier. That puts us on the same side. That, presumably, is why you have an “Open Web Advocate” on your staff. You want the web to win. You don’t want everyone to disappear into an alternate reality approved by Facebook’s marketing department.

You can’t continue to raise salaries across the board and throw money at key employees to prevent them from leaving. What you need to do, if I may say so, is give Google employees a mission to believe in. Google needs to become more relevant, and quickly. In the screenshot below, I’m watching nursery rhymes with my 2-year-old son on Youtube, and Google is monetizing this experience by showing me ads for technical jobs, HP & Windows 7, and Optimum phone service.

Let’s not laugh at Facebook until we can correct this, okay?

Fortunately, Google has already laid the foundation necessary to compete with the Facebook juggernaut. The first phase of Google innovation was in search. From web search to video search to enterprise search, Google has become the leader. The second phase was applications. For the last ten years, Google has been providing cloud-based versions of familiar desktop apps, from word processing to spreadsheets to telephone apps. I can’t blame you for using new technology to recreate the old tools – that’s what always happens first. But Chrome OS is really an important new development, the beginning of the third phase. In the third phase, we stop recreating our old ways of working and start building connected productivity ecosystems. This is the subject of my book and this blog, so I won’t go on about it here. But to sum up – everything Google has done to date has emphasized the push model, rather than pull. In this third phase, Google has a chance to give people the tools to pull information, products, and services to them. I have a vision video that presents these concepts visually and will be happy to show it to you.

Seen from the pull perspective, Android and Chrome OS should merge. As more and more people think of their devices as just different ways to see and use their world of online information, the distinction will dissolve.

Google can beat Facebook by jumpstarting the Open Web. Google can lead this development in two critical areas: 1) personal data management and 2) separating data from apps. These are the two defining aspects of 21st century productivity. If Google doesn’t do it, someone else will. Remember, Google was a little struggling company once, but Sergey and Larry managed to find something people really wanted. It worked well back then, but now people want more. The power shift of the 21st century is not to use the cloud to re-create our desktop tools but to build data-driven ecosystems that take us far beyond what we could have done without the power of the cloud.

The good news is that Google is perhaps the biggest and most important cloud-based company. Google’s experimental, mash-up, fail-fast culture will help you pivot from phase 2 to phase 3, which is where Google regains momentum. Google now has a chance to become really useful by giving people data lockers and data ecosystems that bring us all into the 21st century. Google can team up with all the other closed social networks against Facebook, or Google can embrace and promote the open web. I know certain people inside Google are already familiar with the term “personal data locker” and have read my book. In fact, I tried to get Eric a copy of my personal data locker white paper five years ago, but even our mutual friends said he wouldn’t make time to read it. That’s okay. I’ve been busy fleshing it out – writing books, blogging,  tweeting, giving speeches, making connections, and helping influence the Open Web movement. The personal data locker is the cloud-based computer of the 21st century. Microsoft has a significant effort underway in this area. Other big companies are building their own versions, and several start-ups have either launched or will launch soon. I have a list of them, in case you’re interested. And I think you’ll want to see that video.

When we start getting the data out of the apps, we’ll be building ecosystems. Today’s apps trap data inside them, and that doesn’t scale well. It’s time to realize that data is more important than apps, and that by putting data in the center (in people’s data lockers), we build an ecosystem of services that come and perform tasks or manipulate data. I’ll be talking more about this next year, but this separation is the foundation for building the 21st century web.

One thing: the future that wins won’t be business as usual. The only thing that can beat Facebook is if all the people building web sites have an incentive to stay on the web and use its power, not collapse into Facebook. It won’t be about gathering behavior and keyword data on people and using it to help advertisers target them better. It won’t be about keeping the customer out of the loop. Shifting from push to pull is hard. If you want to beat Facebook, you’ll have to empower people to collect and use their own data for themselves, even if that means not sharing it with Google’s advertisers. But it’s okay, you’ll still be able to make lots of money from them by helping them do just that.

And so will everyone else. If Google embraces the open web and personal data, thousands of startups will get funded and the data-driven ecosystems will really emerge. This is one way to catalyze the movement. I would welcome the opportunity to get it going, and Google can be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. At the same time, it would give Google employees a mission they can believe in.

Guys, I honestly think I have what you need. It’s in my book, and it’s in all these blog posts. The open web is the solution, data is the secret weapon, and the data locker is the Facebook killer. Let’s talk soon.

Happy new year. I hope 2011 is the year of personal data and the open web, not Facebook assimilation and capitulation.

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