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Archive for December, 2011

Why Google Just Can’t Quit the Muppets

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011


It’s no longer news when the company that once famously refused to run commercials does so – another sign of conventionality in the company that promised not to be conventional – but it is still rare enough to be worthy of analysis.

Here is the Google holiday commercial, where the Muppets do a Google+ Hangout.

You get a sense of Google’s strategic priorities by seeing that it’s spending millions to promote Google+. The war for personal information is crucial to Google, and it’s the impetus behind Google+, as I’ve written here. Further information comes in a follow-up interview with Bradley Horowitz, a co-leader of the project.

You get a sense of what works well in Google+ by noting that the focus of the ad is Hangouts, a relatively late addition to Google + that has helped hone its purpose. It’s a cool feature, but also makes a statement: this product is about what’s happening now. Google is well-placed to be a leader in real-time presence, and merging group chat into a social experience has been a win.

But there’s another message, too. You get a sense of Google’s culture—and who the people of Google are—by the choice of the Muppets as the stars of the commercial. Muppets are central to the lives of Googlers. The vast majority of Googlers are people in their twenties and thirties who have completed the perilous obstacle course of the meritocracy, probably starting when their ambitious parents plucked them in front of the telly to absorb the lessons of Big Bird and Count Von Count. (My bet is that many of those parents were otherwise parsimonious with tube time.) Along with the lessons, they bonded with the puppets, much as toddlers get fixated on blankies and stuffed animals.

As a result, even the most math-geeky Googlers kind of melt at the sight of Miss Piggy. It’s not even too much of a stretch to claim that the do-goody ethic of Sesame Street was the forerunner of Don’t Be Evil.

The Muppets keep popping up at the Googleplex.  Google’s very first paid employee, Craig Silverstein, was the founder of the Internet group  rec.arts.henson+muppets

One of the languages included in Google’s translation program is the weird (“bork, bork, pork!”) pidgin of the Swedish Chef from the Muppets Show. .

According to Doug Edwards (in his memoir I’m Feeling Lucky) in Google’s early days, the most important chart on the internal web site was the measure of search quality of various engines. Each line on the chart (representing the effectiveness of a given company in delivering results) was labeled by a Muppet character. Google’s label for itself was “The Great Gonzo.”

Naturally, Google expresses its Muppet-philia in its famous doodles. The Muppets are to the Google home page as guest host Alec Baldwin is to Saturday Night Live. In late 2009, Google decided to run an entire week of doodles to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Muppets.

This year, the Muppets had a movie to promote and the Google connection was never stronger. To introduce its revamped Hangouts (and in a harbinger of the television commercial to come), Google did an introductory Hangout with the Muppets and the human actors in the movie. Google also did a Muppet themed A Google A Day puzzle, with a week of Muppet-related queries, with questions from Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Sam Eagle and Miss Piggy.

This past September, Jim Henson would have been celebrating his 75th birthday if he lived. So of course Google did another Muppet doodle, this time in collaboration with the Hensen company itself. Jim’s son Brian, took over Google’s Official Blog to write a tribute to his dad. This is part of what he wrote:

Jim was clearly a great visionary. But he also wanted everyone around him fully committed creatively., . . . Every day for him was joyously filled with the surprises of other people’s ideas. I often think that if we all lived like that, not only would life be more interesting, we’d all be a lot happier.

The ethic of Jim Henson as expressed above is totally in synch with Google’s self image.  Google people see themselves as creative folk who make people happy the way Henson made them happy when their parents planted them in front of the television as part of the long march towards high SAT scores. No wonder there’s a gaping disconnect between the way Googlers think about their company and the way critics paint it–not as a high-tech art colony but an overly powerful, privacy-gobbling market dominator.

Considering the deep imprinting of Muppetry on the Google mindset, the tv commercial won’t be the last of the partnership of the Henson’s puppets and the Internet giant. Google will be hanging out with the Muppets for a very long time.

He’s the Eun

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Today’s news is that David Eun has left AOL to join Samsung.

Eun came to AOL from Google, where he was head of content. His job dealt largely with forging partnerships with big providers (publishing companies, studios, etc.) in that grey area where Google sort of was and sort of wasn’t — providing content. Now everyone knows that Google is firmly in that business, but in a way that augments its core strengths. It would still be a huge surprise if Google bought a newspaper company or a movie studio. Something like Zagat’s is more of a fit. (Reviews are integral to building a product that directs people to local businesses.)

Eun was one of several top execs that Google’s former ad head Tim Armstrong took with him after Armstrong became the CEO of AOL in 2009. Eun’s role was similar for AOL, and it was more central, since portals are all about the kinds of deals Eun makes.

Samsung is something else. Why does it need a content exec? Is Apple envy behind this? Hardware companies not in Cupertino have rarely made a splash in such partnerships. (Sony, of course, took a more balls-out approach some decades ago and bought a music company and a studio. But thinking like a content owner led Sony to shackle its hardware offerings, and thus the company of the Walkman was too timid to go balls-out in its digital products.)

Another Googler who followed Armstrong to AOL was Jeff Levick, who formerly headed Google’s North American sales. Levick is a fun guy who gave me some great stories for In the Plex, which–did I mention this?–is Amazon’s best business book of the year. (So did Armstrong. In fact, Armstrong promised to take me on a sales call to General Motors or a similar big client. But before we did that, he moved to AOL.)

Levick now works for Spotify,

Together these two departures make a couple of points. First, the AOL remake isn’t thriving. (But you knew that.) Second, no matter what tech business you’re in, you’re probably competing with everybody else. Samsung can butt heads with Google, Apple and Facebook in wrangling content. And everyone–TV, magazines, ebooks, search engines, and music services–is in the ad business.

Including AOL, where its CEO has two fewer trusted lieutenants.

The Year of Living Plex-ably

Monday, December 5th, 2011

It’s the end of the year, so people are compiling “best-of” lists.

Not that I’m paying attention.

I hardly noticed that Amazon selected In the Plex as the best business book of the year.

Or that Audible chose the audio version (wonderfully voiced by L. J. Ganser) as the best audio business book of the year.

Or that the Library Journal listed it among its best business books of 2011.

And Kirkus review included it in its list of best non-fiction books of any stripe. (The package links to a smart interview that Kirkus did with me about the book.)

Or that Strategy + Business a worldly publication that every year picks the class of the lot included Plex as one of the top tech-biz books of the year, with the super-smart (and sometime finicky) Michael Schrage calling the book a “superb, surprisingly comprehensive Baedeker of what makes Google Google.”

Not that I’m keeping track. Still, thought you folks should know. Just in case you were shopping for friends and relatives for the holidays