Five New Year's resolutions for Google

Stakes are high at Google entering 2010, as it attempts to maintain one of the Internet's greatest cash machines while pushing into new and risky markets.

In general, most New Year's resolutions tend to last as long as the NFL playoffs. But those who enter the year working for the world's most ambitious technology company won't have that luxury.

Google enters its 12th year as an information and financial powerhouse, holding claim to perhaps the most enviable position on the Internet and worming its way into all sorts of businesses that Internet companies have traditionally avoided. The company shows little sign of slowing down its innovation engine, but as a result of that pace faces competitive threats like never before from other giants of the technology and media worlds.

What should Google leaders Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page focus on in 2010? Here are five suggestions:

1. Don't forget where you came from
Search remains Google's cash machine. It ended the year with around 65 percent of the U.S. search market, according to ComScore , and does not appear to be losing any momentum. Microsoft's well-received reinvention of its search efforts in the form of Bing seems to have the main effect of taking business away from Yahoo, its pending search partner, rather than denting Google's advantage.

But the nature of search is changing as the nature of information produced for the Internet changes. Real-time results are now seen as important , and Google has much work to do in order to prove its real-time strategy unveiled in December will produce the same types of relevant results that its main search engine did in rising to the top. Social-networking sites are host to an enormous amount of relevant content that Google can't necessarily find.

Google does not face as many competitive threats in search at the moment as its antitrust defense lawyers would like you to believe . But that doesn't mean that it's not vulnerable to the same sort of scrappy start-up that it once was, operating under the radar with a fresh take on the world. As Schmidt well knows, having imposed a strategy of focusing 70 percent of Google's attention on search, keeping the gravy train running is job No. 1 at Google.

2. Get control of the engineers
This is undoubtedly a controversial notion inside of Google. But the tech history books are raft with giants that slowly grew arrogant and haughty with their success, from IBM to Microsoft. Google knows it needs to avoid traveling down a similar path while catering to an engineering culture that has almost never taken no for an answer.

Simply put, Google's engineers do things because they can. And at some point, that's no longer going to fly as Google enters more and more markets. That's because while much of Google's self-image revolves around avoiding evil, that mindset only applies to users of its products. It doesn't apply to competitors or partners, who have the ability to cry foul if they believe they are the victims of unfair competition (regardless of whether or not it's actually true).

If at some point the government deems Google to have a monopoly in search advertising, expect Google's march into other markets to slow. Engineers may scoff at such restraints, truly believing in the quality and usefulness of their work. But regulators are not engineers, and those folks might arguably hold more power over Google in 2010 than any other force.

3. Get HTML5 standards finalized
Much of Google's strategy for ushering computing into the 21st century revolves around the notion that the browser can be the dominant platform for applications. There are numerous benefits to this approach in theory; software can be much more lightweight and suitable to mobile devices if run over the Internet, malware can't knock out a personal computer that doesn't allow things to be installed locally, and, of course, users who spend their lives on the Internet are more likely to search for information.

But in order to make that vision happen without being labeled as a usurper, Google's representatives on the W3C Working Group for HTML5 must make sure that the various components of the HTML5 technologies are approved in concert with the community of other browser vendors, so that Google is not seen as having a distinct advantage. The company appears to take this very seriously , and the sooner the process can be brought to fruition, the easier it will be for projects like Chrome OS to develop without being seen as an attempt to corner the personal computing market.

4. Live up to the promise of Google Books
Perhaps the biggest albatross around Google's neck in 2009 was its settlement with authors and publishers over Google Book search, a process in which Google managed to turn lemonade into lemons . Its attempt to create a digital library for the ages was vehemently protested by authors, privacy advocates, and copyright experts angry over Google's scan-first ask-later approach to building that database.

Few doubt the value of an open digital library that unlocks access to books stored on musty shelves at exclusive universities. But many are distrustful of Google's intentions when it comes to Google Books, and putting their fears to bay could go a long way toward ending the acrimony over the settlement. A final hearing is scheduled for February, and while Google has already made concessions in response to criticism from the Department of Justice, lining up an independent partner to be a second source of this digital material would take the wind out of much of the opposition's argument.

5. Clarify your mobile strategy
We may get a sense of this one extremely soon, as Google is scheduled to host an Android event Tuesday that most believe will mark the debut of its first Android phone sold directly to the general public.

Google is walking a fine line at the moment, should it really intend to sell its own branded phone. One of the primary reasons that the iPhone took off was that Apple dictated the experience that iPhone users and developers would see, locking the hardware specs and controlling the distribution of software for the platform. Of course, that approach has all kinds of side effects , which appeared to be the primary motivation behind Android: a modern mobile software platform free of such restrictions and available to anyone who wants to make a phone.

However, Google's partners--even if they knew about the Nexus One months ago-- are likely to be perplexed by its decision to make its own phone . Will Google developers reserve key Android features for Google devices? Will they cut back on their promotional resources for Open Handset Alliance partners in order to promote their own phone? And why should they trust Google in the future, given that the company has said numerous times that it had no interest in making its own phone?

The beauty of the mobile computing market is that it is truly up for grabs, and that no one company appears ready to dominate in the same manner that Microsoft came to own the PC. But Google will have crossed a line if it really does plan to sell its own phone: it will have leaned on the efforts of others to create a viable market for Android only to swoop in once the software has grown popular with a device of its own.

That means other companies could think twice about partnering with Google in the future.

 

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