Google is apparently looking to be the decider of what's popular in online video and software, the same way it decides what Web pages are popular and which Web pages languish in obscurity.
That is one hell of an ambition. It means the company will be taking on Microsoft for desktop software, as well as taking on Hollywood and its entire distribution infrastructure for movies, DVDs and TV.
But Google's secret motto is "Ambition 'R' Us."Google Video is the company's attempt to go into competition with iTunes and other Internet video providers. It's what we in the technology journalism biz call a "me-too" product. StupendousColossal Technology Inc. comes out with a new, revolutionary product or service, and competitor ColossalStupendous comes up with a competitive offering a short time later that does pretty much the same thing
True, Google Video Store has a couple of interesting wrinkles on it. Google will let content providers set their own prices; iTunes sets the price itself. And Google is coming out with its own Digital Rights Management technology, adding to the proliferation of incompatible file formats already available. (My colleague Johanna Ambrosio has more about the problems of proliferating DRM here, and colleague Preston Gralla says the DRM is "pure hypocrisy" by Google.)
It's nice to have another option for downloadable video. One thing I intend to do over upcoming the long weekend is go online there and poke around and see what's available. Will they have "Lou Grant"? Lou Grant was my role model in life; even as a teen-ager, on some psychic level, I knew I was destined to be a barrel-shaped hirsute-bodied, balding-headed grouch, and so I looked to Lou Grant to guide how I could be good at it.
So Google Video Store is nice. But, as a consumer offering, in and of itself: not all that interesting. Lots of other stuff out already there that's similar.
Likewise, Google Pack is a software bundle, comprised of Norton Anti-Virus, the Firefox browser, a few of Google's own applications such as the Google Toolbar and Google Desktop, and some other stuff. As my colleague Tom Smith points out (scroll down a bit, to the Editor's Note), that's nice and convenient to have, especially when configuring a new computer for home or small business.
But, still: It's a bundle. The applications are already available elsewhere. Not all that interesting to the consumer.
But these products and services become very interesting indeed when considered as hints for future directions for Google.
Google is the prime real estate--the urban downtown or shopping mall--for businesses on the Web. Everybody doing business online knows that if your site scores well with Google, your business will boom, and if your site falls off the first page of Google search results, your business will wither. This is especially true for small businesses, who don't have significant marketing budgets.
And now Google apparently wants to extend that role to video and software. They want to be the place you go to find online video--and, if Google succeeds, a video that doesn't get good placement on Google will not find a significant audience.
John Batelle expands upon that theme a bit. He writes:
For Google to put itself into the position of media middleman is a perilous gambit-in particular given that its corporate DNA eschews the almighty dollar as an arbiter of which content might rise to the top of the heap for a particular search. Playing middleman means that in the context of someone looking for a movie, Google will determine the most relevant result for terms such as "slapstick comedy" or "romantic musical" or "Jackie Chan film." For music, it means Google will determine what comes first for "usher," but it also means Google will have to determine what should come first when someone is looking for "hip-hop." Who gets to be first in such a system? Who gets the traffic, the business, the profits? How do you determine, of all the possibilities, who wins and who loses?
In the physical world, the answer is clear: whoever pays the most gets the positioning, whether it's on the supermarket shelf or the bin end of a record store. As Yahoo also becomes a superdistributor of media content, I have no doubt the company will figure out some way to index and distribute media content that is moderated by the traditional market forces of who pays the most, and what is the most popular.
But Google, more likely than not, will attempt to come up with a clever technological solution that attempts to determine the most "objective" answer for any given term, be it "romantic comedy" or "hip-hop." Perhaps the ranking will be based on some mix of PageRank, downloading statistics, and Lord knows what else, but one thing is certain: Google will never tell anyone how it came to the results it serves up. Which creates something of a catch-22 when it comes to making money. Will Hollywood really be willing to trust Google to distribute and sell its content absent the commercial world's true ranking methodology: cold, hard cash?
Likewise, for desktop software, Google apparently wants to create a situation where Google Pack becomes widespread and commonplace. If that happens, inevitably, software companies will pound on Google's door begging to be included in Google Pack. And that's a role that's currently occupied by Microsoft and the PC vendors; if stuff is already on a user's desktop when he buys a PC, he's more likely to use it than if he has to install it separately.
Will Microsoft sit still for Google's challenge on the PC desktop? Not too long ago, the answer to that question would have been: Hell, no! A few years ago, Microsoft would have ripped Google into little pieces, stomped on the pieces, then mash all the stomped-on pieces into a ball so they can rip it apart and stomp on it again a few times.
But, as the magazine The New Yorker pointed out in a recent article: Microsoft is turning into IBM nowadays. They're huge, and staggeringly profitable, but Microsoft is just not scary anymore.
And, finally: All this discussion suggests a similar agenda for Google Books, which Google announced last year: It wants to own the book business, taking it away from the publishers, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com.