SAN FRANCISCO — Larry Page spoke softly from the stage at the Moscone Center West on Wednesday morning, but the carrot he dangled in front of developers was accompanied by the big stick he brandished against his competition.
Page let his company do the heavy lifting of going after rivals with major product updates. Changes to Google+ aimed aggressive shots at Facebook and Skype. An overhaul to Google Maps pushed it far beyond what the nearest competition from Bing can bring. Meanwhile, the new streaming music service Google Music All Access served up scorching features that could undermine the very streaming music apps like Pandora and Spotify that helped build Android into the 900 million user arena act that it is today.
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His soft voice, the result of his recently disclosed medical condition, stood in sharp contrast to the bombast and excitement that preceded him. Dressed in a red T-shirt and jacket, Page seemed small on the suddenly empty stage. For most of his time up there, an image of the Earth as viewed from space at night rotated behind him.
“Technology should do the hard work, so people can get on doing the things that make them happiest in life,” Page said.
“Imagine how self-driving cars will change our lives and the landscape,” he said as he extolled the virtues of his company’s own work on automated vehicles. There will be “more green space, fewer parking lots, greater mobility, fewer accidents, more freedom, [and] fewer hours wasted behind the wheel of the car,” he said.
He forgot to mention a fluffy bunny for every home, but at least on the count of better living through tech Page is right. The promise of technology, of life made easier by building better tools, has driven humanity since long before Charles Babbage built his analytical engine.
Wherever the audience questions took him, Page returned to the theme of the technology-driven utopia. But he also had sharp words for those who stood in the way of Google’s vision, and at no point acknowledged any legitimate criticisms of the company.
Owning the bully pulpit and preaching to the Google faithful, he took a pot shot at the health insurance industry for sinking Google Health. “I asked, why are people so focused on keeping their medical history private, the answer is probably insurance. That makes no sense. We should change the rules,” he said.
Google’s progress in health care will come in areas where there are “technological levers” like DNA sequencing, he explained.
Page also commented more specifically about the behemoths in the tech industry. Of his company’s entrenched legal battle with Oracle over the use of Java in Android, he sounded an optimistic but reserved tone. The audience laughed when he said, “We’ve had a difficult relationship with Oracle, including having to appear in court.” He added, “We’d like to have a cooperative relationship, [but] money is more important to them than having any kind of collaboration… we’ll get through that just fine. Just not in the easy way.”
He took a similar approach to discussing open standards. “I think we’ve been really excited about the Web, being birthed from it. We’ve really invested a lot in the open standards,” Page said, and then in his next sentence complained about being “sad” at “the industry’s behavior.”
“If you just take something as simple as instant messaging, we’ve had an offer forever that we’ll operate on instant messaging. Just this week, Microsoft took advantage to interoperate with us, but not the reverse. You need to have interoperation, not people milking off of one company for their benefit.”
It’s hard to square comments like those against his next sentence, “I’ve been sad the industry hasn’t been able to advance those things because a focus on negativity and zero-sum games,” because Google’s actions often belie that message.
Not surprisingly, Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft’s public relations chief, didn’t think much of what Page had to say. “It’s ironic that Larry is lending his voice to the discussion of interoperability considering his company’s decision — today — to file a cease and desist order to remove the YouTube app from Windows Phone, let alone the recent decision to make it more difficult for our customers to connect their Gmail accounts to their Windows experience,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
Oracle’s Java lawsuit and Google’s interoperability conflict with Microsoft are hardly the only examples from the company’s storied history of not playing nice, to put it politely. Google seems to almost relish doing things without express user permission first, and then backtrack and apologize later.
In 2012, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission hit Google with a $22.5 million fine, the largest to date for violating a FTC order, when Google tracked Apple Safari users without their permission.
Google Search, its original business, has come under repeated fire over the years, and now is subject to potential de-monopolizing regulations in Europe. Privacy violations from the now-dead Google Buzz lead the company into another FTC settlement, the Author’s Guild is asking for $3 billion from Google for its digital book scanning shenanigans, and Google has long faced privacy complaints for its display of license plates on Google Maps Street View.
Despite all the double-sided talk from Page, his message about the potential of technology to improve our lives resonated with the crowd. He refused to underestimate the importance of hiring women, saying, “The only answer is we have to start early and make sure we have more young women and girls excited about technology. If we do that, we’ll more than double the rate of progress we have in the technology world,” to which the crowd responded enthusiastically.
Page’s earlier comments about the U.S. medical insurance industry also received a loud, vocal, and encouraging response.
But by far, the loudest whooping and hollering was a response to what he said before he even began taking questions from the audience: “Being negative is not how we make progress,” Page said.
Perhaps so. But Google must make sure “don’t be evil” doesn’t become “do as I say, not as I do.”
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