Google nation

Google founders Larry Page & Sergey Brin

Google founders Larry Page & Sergey Brin

Google is slowly constructing a suite of services that will allow it to compete with Microsoft on its home ground – the operating system. This may be great for consumer choice but the underlying privacy concerns it creates are already leaving a bad taste in peoples’ mouths.

While it has been asked for some time, Google is still tight-lipped when questioned about working on a competitor to Microsoft’s Windows operating system. The assumed wisdom says that it is but the world will not know for sure until the day the company officially unveils it, whenever that may be.

It is arguable, however, that we are already in the middle of a long walk towards a ‘Google OS’ and that such a system will grow from the combination of existing smaller services rather than be a single large one itself.

While this would be a backwards approach to the operating system, it is not as odd as it may first seem. Particularly since its IPO in 2004, Google has regularly been rolling out services, both web-based and downloadable, to make it far more than a humble search engine.

People can now use Google to send e-mail, view and edit office documents, build websites, share and store photographs, search their own desktop, get travel directions and even browse the web generally; amongst many other services. At this stage it is easier to list the segments of the tech-world that the Californian company does not have a stake in.

Google is also heavily involved in the Android mobile operating system, which shows a clear willingness to develop a fully-fledged system to push its products into people’s hands where necessary.

Of course this may all be construed as circumstantial but there is also a motive. A Google OS makes perfect sense for the company’s central aim, which is to draw people to Google.com. All of these existing services have been developed to make Google a central part of people’s lives so they interact with it on a regular basis and the more they interact the more frequent and focused its adverts can be.

The stated rationale for Google’s development of the Chrome web browser was that the company wanted to ensure people accessing its services online got the full experience and it could only do so by designing a custom-built medium. As Google also offers downloadable programmes, Chrome being one example, the same logic can be extended to suggest a need for an overall operating system too, to ensure people also experience these programmes as they were intended to.

After all, the beauty of what Apple does with the Mac is create a unified feel to the entire experience. If Google can mimic this and create an operating system specifically designed to exhibit a web browser, which is in turn specifically designed to exhibit Google.com it will make the user far more likely to go there for information.
To some degree consumers should be excited about a Google OS – it is the only company on the scene that would have any hope of tackling Microsoft’s market dominance in that area and this can only be a good thing. At the same time it is hard to avoid the sense of fear that increasingly comes with every new Google release and that would undoubtedly come with the launch of Google OS; a fear over privacy.

Google is at heart an advertising agency and ad agents love nothing more than raw data on their audience. Clearly, the more Google knows about you the better it can target adverts that would be of appeal to you and this is a technique the company has been quite explicit about.

Of course its one thing to allow Google to know the sites you visit or information you want to find but there is a tipping point at which the level of information accessible by the company can become unnerving.

Assuming you use every Google service available at present you may already have crossed a mental line without really thinking about it. Theoretically Google could have records of everything you look for online, every site you visit, every e-mail you sent and received, every document you created and read and every photograph you have ever taken. Not only that it would know every ‘when’ and ‘where’ that ties in with it.

Google’s latest release, Google Latitude takes this level of information gathering and the debate that goes with it to a new level. This service allows people to track the location of their friends over Google Maps, thanks to an application that can be downloaded to computers or mobile phones. Users can decide not to use the service, of course, or opt to limit the information given out but it does serve as a blunt reminder for what is accessible.

Naturally all of this information is said to be encrypted and protected so that the individual behind it will never be identified and despite some slip ups along the way Google has been relatively honest and fair in the way it handles personal information.

Perhaps the real worry for users should be not what the company is doing with your information but what it may be forced to do by governments or future owners. It is also hard to forget the recent AOL incident where users were easily identified by leaked search information that was supposed to be protected.

Google make some good products and sometimes some brilliant ones. The truth is it has done the hard work in creating the components for an operating system; all it really needs now is a shell to piece everything together. If, or more likely when it finally does this it will be anyone’s guess to say whether privacy will be a concern to potential users.

An edited version of this article appeared in Business & Finance on the 12th February 2009.

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