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Slow motion train wreck

Watching the self-destruction of for-profit public companies is like watching a very-slow motion train wreck. In the beginning stages, you can see where the train came off the rails, yet the gruesome end is far away. The train heads generally in the same direction, and has all the same speed and energy as before.

You can read stories of companies gone wrong in past, yet folk running companies continue to make the same mistakes. As though there were some common factor in human nature that comes repeatedly into play.

You can follow these patterns back to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. With the rise of large-scale industrialization came the rise of large human organizations.

As history shows, we have not really figured this out.

Vanished giant

A few years out of University, worked at one of the largest computer companies on the planet. Burroughs was second in the industry, behind IBM. Burroughs offices and factories were scattered around the world. The history of advancements in computer technology pioneered by Burroughs was impressive. Got to work on and lead one of the most interesting and advanced projects in the company.

In the end, the project and the company came to naught, for largely the same reason.

Early hint came on first walk through the factory. Saw board-level technology a couple generations behind, used to build current computers. Odd, but not a clue I could then interpret.

Turns out, severals years earlier Burroughs made large bet on a new chip-level technology. Took years for the project to play out, before final failure became clear. Burroughs was left building current-computers with slightly antique technology.

A history of innovative work meant Burroughs had attracted quite a pool of bright engineers. On visit to various Burroughs plants, found groups of engineers bubbling with clever ideas. Yet somehow this all came to an end.

Turns out, there was a chronic malfunction in management. Badly burned by the large recent failure, Burroughs management developed the habit of avoiding risk. Given the all advancement in high-technology work involves risk, this killed the company.

Took customers a few years to notice. The year I joined Burroughs, they were growing steadily in excess of 20% per year. When I left, two years later they were shrinking at an equal rate.

Watching Google

Google started with an Internet search engine better than the rest. They found a modest amount of advertising made embarrassing amounts of money. Rather than take immediate profit and walk away, Google invested in other services of benefit to users.

In the beginning, for an end-user Google services were a great deal. Google was in this time playing to one of the oldest and most often forgot lesson in business:

Keep your customers happy, and it is possible to make a profit. Good service to customers is how you keep customers happy.

Fast forward a couple decades, and Google has new management. New management is judged against performance under old management. To earn their bonus, new management wants to show growth like the past. This is simple "lines goes up" thinking, and not unreasonable if the context is the same.

The context is not the same. The market for advertising is not unlimited. Once you saturate a market, "lines goes up" is not a useful model.

You can see the shift in the management-mind.
Easy to shift to seeing advertisers as the customers, and end-users as the product.
Easy to put the interests of advertisers and short-term profit over the interests of end-users.
Easy to go from modest and useful advertising, to instead shovelling an unpleasant heap on the end-user.

Which takes us to the present.

Google was once the smartest and most useful search engine. Google of the present is noisy and occasionally infuriating. First is the noise of injected ads both above and within the actual search results. In past, Google injected ads were useful often enough to not be a bother. Once Google was selective in the ads presented (maximizing value to the end-user). In present, you can see the shift in Google-mind with the shift in the presented ads. In the present, Google presents ads if even vaguely related (maximizing value from the advertiser). At the least, you have to scroll through a stream of useless ads. When the first search yields no useful result, and you refine your search, Google tends to present pages of the same useless ads.

This last can be infuriating. Google has become annoying.

Beyond search results, Google cannot make useful choices. Much like Burroughs of old, Google is stuck in an unproductive pattern. In an attempt to "put more word behind one arrow", Google lost any coherent approach. Google services appear and go away for no good reason. This is the opposite of good service, and makes Google an unreliable provider.

Once dominant companies have faded before: Burroughs, Lotus, Sun, MySpace, AOL, Yahoo, and IBM - to name a few. Google has setup the pre-condition - unsatisfied users - for a competitor to appear and grow.

Just the slightest bump, and this train will be off the tracks.