Slide, Vic Gundotra & The Un-Social Reality of Google

It was a nearly a decade and a half ago that I fell in love with America’s pastime, baseball. I loved the sound of the ball hitting the bat. I loved the juxtaposition of green grass and red clay on the baseball diamond. While it wasn’t quite like the cricket I grew up playing in the streets of Delhi, it was something that evoked similar emotions.

I longed to play baseball and wanted so badly to learn how to hit and pitch. Then I joined Red Herring magazine. Like many San Francisco publications of the past, the magazine employed a lively and colorful cast of characters. We played against other magazines, like Wired, and advertising agencies. Despite my lack of experience, I talked my way onto the Herring softball team.

When it came time to bat, I suddenly realized that I was holding the baseball bat as if I was playing cricket. When the pitch came to me, I took a step forward and drove it to right field, much as I was driving a ball through the covers on a cricket field. No matter what I did, I couldn’t hit the ball hard enough to drive in a run. This went on for a few games. I just didn’t have the baseball swing. Cricket was so ingrained in my thinking and how I related to a bat and ball that it may as well have been encoded in my DNA.

Ain’t Got That Swing

I love baseball and will always await the first day of spring training with the ardor of a lover coming home after an exile. But I will never be a baseball player. It’s just not in my make-up. My misery over my failed baseball career is no different than Google’s (s goog). The world’s largest search engine covets a key to the magical kingdom called the social web. It would do anything to become part of that exclusive club that, for now, is the domain of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and to some extent, Twitter.

Google will do just about anything to get social, like spend a rumored $182 million on San Francisco-based Slide, a head-scratcher of a deal. Some rumors say the price was as high as $228 million. Now, I’m happy for Max Levchin and his investors, but frankly, the deal shows that Google not only has no idea what to do about social, but actually lacks the imagination to even think of anything worthwhile on its own. If Google is really trying to go social and get on the social gaming bandwagon, this deal is comparable to buying a Kia and hoping it can help you race past a Mercedes AMG 65 on the Autobahn.

On Quora, a social Q&A services, someone asks, “Why did Slide and RockYou miss/avoid the social gaming trend that Zynga and Playfish capitalized upon?“. The answers are quite telling, but the response from Josh Elman (formerly of Facebook) stands out:

I think that Zynga and Playfish both started with gaming as their sole focus. They weren’t trying to “pick the trend,” they just believed that you could combine casual games with the new distribution models of social networks and create new businesses. Both of them discovered the extraordinary opportunities of monetization after a lot of hard work and failures. I think one of the challenges of Slide and RockYou during those periods was they probably did try harder to “pick the trend” and optimize it rather than just build towards something deeper and more sustainable.

Ironically, what Google is doing is exactly the same — pick a trend and optimize for it.

By the Engineers, for the Engineers

This only amplifies what I felt earlier this morning. Having failed to hire a head of social, Google decided to put its man for all seasons, Vic Gundotra, in charge of social. Having seen Vic at work (first at Microsoft (s msft) and later at Google), I just wonder if he is the right guy for the gig. He’s a smart and analytical product manager — his work on Google Mobile only shows that — but social needs more than the ability to add games, features and music.

Social is more than just features. I’ve been saying for a while that in order to understand social and win over the social web, companies need to understand people. I’m not sure Google is capable of understanding people on that level, and that’s the reason why the company strikes out whenever it tries. There are rumors Google co-founder Sergey Brin championed the acquisition of Slide. He also championed Google Wave (which is shutting down) and the poorly conceived Google Buzz.

Google, thanks to two brilliant engineer-founders, has become a great company seemingly able to solve the world’s most complicated engineering problems. That ability made it turn search into the great money machine that it is. It knows how to tweak machines and make them do unfathomable things. But what it can’t do is internalize empathy. It doesn’t know feelings. It doesn’t comprehend that relationships are more than a mere algorithm. You can see this in its many offerings; they’re efficient, but devoid of emotion, and emotions are what drive interaction. A smile begets a smile, a frown a frown and a conversation a conversation. That’s true in the real world, and it’s true on the web.

IBM, Microsoft & Google

Adam Rifkin outlined this in a brilliant post (summarized here), which, unfortunately, is not accessible online. His argument, and I wholeheartedly agree, is that you are who you are and that’s the way it is. Google can’t change, just as I couldn’t change my batting stance. The whole company is built around “goal-oriented behavior,” which essentially means “come to Google, do your search and move onto the next thing.” That’s its fate and also its destiny. If the company doesn’t recognize it, then it’s going to go down the road IBM (s ibm) took in the 1990s and Microsoft is currently walking along, an argument poignantly made by Dave Winer in this lesson in technology history.

The way I see it, Google is facing pressure from two different directions. On one side, the social web is moving toward a future where serendipity replaces search. Facebook is on this side. On the other side, with mobile apps, Apple (s aapl) has helped popularize a new goal-oriented, task-specific paradigm that essentially starts to obviate the need for search. These two behavior changes are clear and present danger to Google, as I pointed out last year in a GigaOM research report (subscription required.)

Buying Slide, investing in Zynga or launching Google Me are great ideas in theory, just as is the idea of me playing baseball!