Posted by Jonathan Penn on May 17, 2010
The latest string of privacy fiascos from Google and Facebook lead me to wonder if they will ever learn to respect their consumer users. For both companies, I think one of the dynamics behind this is the fact that their these consumers aren’t the ones from whom the companies collect revenue, the incorrect conclusions the founders and executives derived from that, and the cultures they developed within their companies as they grew based on these erroneous assumptions.
Google has an almost innate ability to develop applications and services that unleash the power of the Internet to transform people’s lives. Yet the engineering culture that drives such stellar technical achievements is what hinders Google in their relationships with consumers. Google doesn’t have what it takes to run a consumer business: it’s just not in their DNA. This is how we can hear on the one hand about how Android is a smashing success from an engineering perspective and is purportedly now outselling the iPhone in the US, while learning the same week that Google is going to stop selling Nexus One direct to consumers.
To succeed with consumer products would require Google to have more polish and quality assurance beyond the core engineering challenge (versus relegating some services to the purgatory of perpetual beta), development of consumer customer support services (a la the Nexus One), and of course a more respectful approach to users (see: privacy).
It would be a shame if the lesson Google took from the Nexus One would be to forgo future efforts at selling direct to consumers. Having a deeper relationship with consumers and being accountable to them as paying customers would teach Google to be more sensitive to their concerns. It’s the same thing with Facebook: it, too, would have a completely different attitude and approach to privacy changes if consumers paid for their accounts.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Some companies that don’t get revenues from their consumer users approach them with understanding and respect just the same. I just spent a few days in Prague, where I met with the AV companies Avast! and AVG. At each of these companies, the vast majority of users are running the free version of their products. But the difference between Avast! and AVG on the one hand, and Google and Facebook on the other, in their attitudes towards their non-paying users cannot be more stark. Avast! and AVG exhibit the utmost deference and sensitivity in dealing with their non-paying consumer users. They are fully aware that the future of their companies depends on their ability to retain and expand upon these relationships. As they explore ways to monetize these relationships, it’s by delivering more value and developing stronger bonds of trust. The Google and (especially) Facebook approach seem to be through exploitation and indifference.