Google and affliction of me-too-ism

Google (s GOOG), if the Wall Street Journal is to believed, is about to launch an online storage service. When I read the news, the first question that ran across my mind was not that they are going to offer the service, but instead could Google be any later to the party? I mean Microsoft, (s MSFT) a company known to follow the pack, has already released its own online offering. Apple, (s AAPL) not exactly an Internet powerhouse, has come up with iCloud (and its predecessor iDisk that launched in 2001), which despite its track record, actually works. And then there is Dropbox and dozens of other small companies that offer similar services.

Like Dropbox, Google’s storage service, called Drive, is a response to the growth of Internet-connected mobile devices like smartphones and tablets and the rise of “cloud computing,” or storing files online so that they can be retrieved from multiple devices, these people said.

Drive allows people to store photos, documents and videos on Google’s servers so that they could be accessible from any Web-connected device and allows them to easily share the files with others, these people said. If a person wants to email a video shot from a smartphone, for instance, he can upload it to the Web through the Drive mobile app and email people a link to the video rather than a bulky file. [The Wall Street Journal.]

The question we should all be asking: How is it that Google, with its vast army of smart people and billions of dollars, couldn’t build a cloud storage drive over past five years? Why did it fail in its previous attempts and how is it that a company whose core competency includes “infrastructure” has failed to build this very basic cloud offering? And most importantly, how can a company that is intimate with the concept of cloud and owns Android, the mobile computing platform, not be able to understand the strategic importance of an “online storage drive”?

What’s Wrong With Google?

The answer for those questions lies in what I see is a growing problem at the Mountain View, Calif.-based search giant — me-too-ism. Saying that won’t win me any fans — certainly not amongst the Google faithful — but the fact remains that with the exception of “search & advertising” & “communication” — its two areas of core expertise, Google has been unable to predict where technologies are going to lead the society (and yes that does include business.) Android? That came through an acquisition and that too at the insistence of one of Google’s founders.

Where Google does have a stellar track record is web infrastructure and innovations in network design and architecture. And that is because, infrastructure is Google’s DNA. The companies, I have always maintained, have a DNA and it is what makes the companies self-aware, which in turn defines how they view the world, how they compete, hire people and most importantly build products. Google has spent a lot of its corporate energy chasing Facebook instead of focusing on what was really important — not only its present, but its future.

Social as it stands today is a battle between two companies — Facebook and Twitter. Google’s quest to become social is making it do some unnatural things. Instead, Google should have been figuring out ways to use its infrastructure and delivering magic on the Android phones. Some good examples include Google Voice on Android or Google Mail on Android.

The reason they are so impressive are because they leverage Google’s awesome infrastructure. A virtual online storage drive should have been top priority for the company. Why? Because it would have enhanced company’s Android experience. Many of Google’s customers — handset makers like HTC who are using Android are turning to Dropbox to add more space to the phone.  In an interview  Dropbox co-founder and CEO Drew Houston told us:

Dropbox can help deliver on the “connected anywhere” promises that have been around for years, but that he doesn’t think have truly materialized with regard to data. But once consumers experience having their “stuff” with them wherever they are, it will be “like the first day of the rest of your life,” he explained, like when we first were able to boost productivity by using e-mail and other applications on our phones.

A month later, when Houston and I chatted on stage at our GigaOM RoadMap conference in November 2011, Drew hinted that the company was looking beyond what was simply storage.

Dropbox will also be able to store not only a person’s photos but the metadata about that photo, the location information. “All of these things become possible. We can index all that metadata in the pictures and then tell you where the picture is taken, and maybe give you all the pictures taken within ten mile radius.” This sounds like a lot more than storage.

Google, too, should have been looking at its “drive” from the perspective as Dropbox long before now. It would have allowed the company to get better traction with app developers and at the same time differentiate from its biggest mobile rival, Apple.

Google is really good at finding information and using the “drive” as a hub to connect to various services, and then finding information on top of that should have been a primary focus for the company. Instead, it went chasing Facebook and social. Much like Microsoft kept chasing and chasing and chasing opportunities in search and advertising.