Earning loyalty

Here’s something that I wrote internally within Google in mid-2013. I think at the time, folks within Google were discussing XMPP. The discussion wasn’t as much about client-to-server XMPP, but server-to-server XMPP, which is a less followed area. Anyway, here’s the internal post I wrote:

We want to compete on a level playing field

We’ve expressed the principle of “Don’t be evil” from the early days of Google. Yet it wasn’t until 2006 that Eric enunciated the statement that “We would never trap user data.” I think Google’s DNA has another principle encoded in it that we haven’t called out clearly enough: We want to compete on a level playing field.

When we play on a level field, we work harder for users because we have to compete based on merit. If another search engine crawls the open web and returns better search results, people will switch to that new search engine immediately–so we’re constantly looking for ways to improve our search results.

Likewise, when people can leave Google, it makes us work harder to forge excellent products that earn our users’ loyalty. Data Liberation means that anyone can download their Gmail or their Calendar or Docs or their ad campaigns and then take their business elsewhere. That keeps us honest and working hard. We should strive to put our own products on a level playing field so that our incentive remains to deliver the best products and services we can.

The desire for a level playing field also partly explains why Chrome and Android are so important. Without Chrome, we’d be at the mercy of Internet Explorer or other web browsers when users want to get to Google. Without Android, phone makers could shut Google out of mobile phones completely. Chrome and Android help ensure that users can get to Google without interference; they protect our users from other companies’ potentially unlevel playing fields.

I think to many Googlers, the open web represents the ultimate level playing field. That’s why so many Googlers react so negatively to the idea of walled gardens, proprietary standards, or products that don’t interoperate well. The desire to compete fairly on a level playing field leads naturally to open standards, protocols, and interoperability.

Some other companies that don’t federate well have succeeded recently. [A specific company I won’t call out explicitly] sucked contacts out of Gmail but refused to export contacts back out. But I worry we learned the wrong lesson from that. The lesson isn’t that data liberation or a level field makes us a sitting duck for bad actors; the lesson should be that we may need to get creative to encourage better behavior–for example, Google modified its contacts export to require reciprocity.

At the top levels of Google, there’s a clear vision: a beautiful, seamless experience for users. I agree that’s vitally important, but I believe a large part of Google’s brand is also “functional”: Google is always up, it always works, it’s always fast, it always gives you what you need. I believe a beautiful, seamless experience has to rest on a functional foundation. And for many Googlers, a large part of “functional” includes openness and interoperability–again, a level playing field.

Google has done very well while promoting the principles of the internet: openness, transparency, and a level playing field. I think “We want to compete on a level playing field” follows from “Don’t be evil,” but I’d like us to recognize this part of our DNA and emphasize “We want to compete on a level playing field” more strongly.

Backward-looking or forward-looking?

History is an angel being blown backwards into the future.
History is a pile of debris,
and the angel wants to go back and fix things,
to repair things that have been broken.

But there is a storm blowing from Paradise,
and this storm keeps blowing the angel backwards into the future.
And this storm is called Progress.

— From the song “The Dream Before” by Laurie Anderson, based on a quote by Walter Benjamin

One lens that I find useful is whether a project is backward-looking or forward-looking. A backward-looking project is one that attempts to fix something that is broken. A forward-looking project starts with a fresh slate and attempts to create something new.

Both kinds of projects are important and necessary. For example, a backward-looking project might be to tackle corruption in politics. If government doesn’t respond to citizens’ desires and needs, that’s a long-term threat to our society. Likewise, a lot of regulation is backward-looking because it reacts to events. Another example: ton of startups succeed by fixing things that are fundamentally broken today.

An example of a forward-looking project might be to build a self-driving car. With many forward-looking projects there’s an inherent bet that you’ll make something useful enough that when society’s mores and regulations catch up, people will see the value in your project.

An example of forward-looking views is Peter Diamandis, who argues that our future is abundance.

Take something like climate change. A backward-looking approach might try to figure out how to improve coal plants to make them cleaner. A forward-looking approach might be to try to figure out how to build a practical fusion power plant. Projects like smart grids or improved solar cells could be backward-looking or forward-looking depending on the level of granularity.

I don’t really have a good ending to this blog post–this is just a way of looking at the world that interests me. Society will always need people fixing things that are broken. I feel like forward-looking projects might be a little more fun (or at least leave you feeling more optimistic). But unless you choose your project carefully, you run the risk of rushing forward, only to suffer major pain if society disagrees with you.

The four cities that matter most in the United States?

If you had to pick the top four cities that matter the most in the U.S. based on the industry that they represent, which cities would you pick? I’d argue for these four:

– New York City: money/finance/Wall Street
– Los Angeles: culture, such as TV and movies
– Silicon Valley (taking San Jose up to San Francisco as one mega-city): technology
– Washington D.C.: power

Beyond those four areas, things get murkier. Other cities like Chicago or Philadelphia are clearly important, but they’re diverse enough that they’re not synonymous with a specific industry. A city like Las Vegas is well-known for gambling, but would you rank gambling as more important than money, culture, technology or power? And frankly, you could also choose New York City for other industries such as publishing or journalism.

Likewise, you can absolutely have an impact in (say) technology outside of the Bay Area–think Boston, Seattle, or Austin–but it’s probably easier to drive technological change in the Bay Area.

Looking at it from the other direction, if you consider other large areas of the economy like energy, health care, or education, you don’t immediately think of a specific city associated with those industries.

I find this “four city” theory interesting. For example, you might consider politics or current events through the four city lens for insights about how the different areas interact with each other. Or you might look at a city like Detroit that has been known for the car industry, and consider what causes a city to thrive or not. Or you can look at how the United States interacts with other countries, and break down that interaction by money, culture, technology, or power. Or you might ask yourself whether you want to live in one of those four regions, or decide that you deliberately don’t want to live there.

Do you agree or think I’m crazy? I’d be curious to hear what other industries or cities people would propose adding, or if you think I’m completely off base.

Dial tone moments

Googlers love to discuss and debate things within the company. As a rule of thumb, the internal discussion is civil and respectful, but can be passionate. I may take a few of my favorite internal posts that I wrote, tweak them a bit, and publish them here just so I can refer to them more easily down the road.

Here’s something I wrote in 2012:

Recently Google has been shooting for more “magical” moments, and that’s a noble goal. But I think our first priority has to be “dial tone” moments. On a basic level, that can be as simple as uptime and reliability–if Google Voice or Google Music or some other product is too flaky, people won’t use it.

But we should also strive for dial tone moments in terms of consistency or utility or latency. Here’s a simple example. Saturday night in Mountain View I wanted to check how hot it would get on Sunday. I got three different answers from Google. Google Now claimed the high would be 88 degrees. Doing a mobile search for [weather mountain view] predicted a high of 82 degrees. And the News & Weather widget predicted a high of 81. I got those results all within a minute of each other.

If we can’t tell the user whether it’s going to be closer to 80 or closer to 90 tomorrow, how can we expect users to trust us for magic moments?

I think a lot of Google’s reputation or “brand” comes from being a useful, functional tool. Magical moments are fine (great even), but overall the most important thing Google needs is to nail “dial tone” moments, where people just assume that Google will always be up, always be fast, and always get them exactly what they need. If we can do better, great, but we have to nail those dial tone moments.

At Charlie’s, the main cafe at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, there’s a door that uses an electric eye to automatically open as you walk up. When the automatic door is working, it’s a smoother experience than walking 10-15 extra feet and pulling open the regular doors yourself.

Unfortunately, the automatic door seems to be broken about 5-10% of the time. Either someone forgets to unlock it when the cafe opens up, or it’s broken, or it takes too long to open. Then you’re left standing and feeling silly waiting for a door that might or might not open. I noticed that over time, lots of people stopped using that door and went straight to the regular doors. It took 3-4 extra seconds to walk over to the regular doors, but they always consistently worked. The automatic door was optimizing for magical moments when it needed to optimize for dial tone moments. The automatic door had to walk before it could run.

What does this mean for you or your company? Look for dial tone moments or rough edges where you could improve. I had one colleague at Google who I swear could walk from his car to his office and find six different things that needed to be improved. There’s stuff all around you that could be much better if you just lower your annoyance threshold enough to notice it.

Just as an example, I’ll pick on tivo.com because I love TiVo. One annoyance: when you tell tivo.com to keep you signed in for 45 days, and then come back a week later, you have to sign in again. Another annoyance: you can only search for shows happening within the next two weeks or so.

I would consider the first annoyance to be a dial tone issue: it shouldn’t be hard to stay signed in to a website. That’s a very fixable issue. In fact, when I come to tivo.com, the message at the top knows my name even while another part of the page is telling me that I have to sign in:

Tivo sign in required

The second annoyance–only searching two weeks out–might easily be a multi-month project or even impossible, depending on how and where TiVo gets their data from. But you’d get almost as much goodwill from fixing the easy, dial tone issue as you would from fixing the really hard problem.

If you’re not using (“dogfooding”) your product every day and looking daily for annoyances, snags, or rough spots, you’re missing out. If you run a website, pay attention to the uptime and speed of your site. Monitor your vital metrics and trigger an alert if something goes seriously out of whack. Your product should probably be reliable before you shoot for flashiness.

Choosing an ecosystem for your data

You have many choices about where to put your data (email, docs, calendar, contacts): Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, open source/self-hosting, etc. One big consideration for me is how hard it is to export my data. In essence, I’m looking for the exits before I even sit down in any company’s virtual room.

For example, my wife bought an iPhone soon after it came out in 2007. Within minutes of playing with hers, I knew I’d soon be upgrading my flip phone to an iPhone as well. But I had to decide where to put my contacts, my calendar, and so forth.

At one point, my wife ran into a problem with her Apple calendar that gave a weird error. When I searched for more information on that error message, I only found five matching web pages. Eventually, I figured out that the data on Apple’s calendar server had gotten mucked up and I needed to re-push a clean version of the data from a client. That stuck in my mind because Apple can be a pretty closed ecosystem. If something stopped working, it would be harder to fix the issue not only because the ecosystem was closed, but because the ecosystem was smaller at that time.

I’m not a complete Google loyalist about my data. Most of my MP3s are from Amazon because they were among the first to offer a wide selection of music without DRM. I use CrashPlan to back up our family’s computers. I post public micro-updates on Twitter more often than on Google+. And I chose WordPress for my blog instead of Blogger in part to emphasize that this was my personal blog.

But in general, I like that Google’s ecosystem promises not to trap user data, and Eric Schmidt recently reaffirmed that principle (it’s about 29:30 into the video). In essence, if you don’t like how Google handles your email, docs, calendar, or contacts, it’s easy to take your data out and go somewhere else.

Because Google works to avoid data lock-in, it has to earn your loyalty. I like that a lot. The ability to export my data really matters to me. That’s why I’m comfortable using Twitter. And that’s one of the reasons that I deactivated my Facebook account 4.5 years ago–Facebook just didn’t feel as committed to letting me get my data back out of Facebook.

Recently my wife got the new iPhone 6. It was easy for her to pull in my Google Calendar info, but Apple doesn’t allow their calendar data to flow directly into Google Calendar. That means that Apple’s ecosystem isn’t a good match for me. Apple’s choices for their ecosystem still work well for hundreds of millions of people though.

No one ecosystem is right or wrong or best, only best for you. There’s a lot of reasons to choose a particular ecosystem, and everybody should decide what they care about for themselves. For some, it’s something that “just works.” For others, it’s the ability to tweak every single setting or directly control their own data, like with open-source. For others, it might be the size of the ecosystem. Or how much they trust the keeper of that ecosystem. Or the security of that ecosystem. For me, I usually prefer a reasonable user experience, a lot of security protection, and an escape hatch to take my data with me. That’s why I believe the Google ecosystem is the best fit for my data at this point.

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