The Google Reef

Today I’ll be at Google to attend the press release of the Nexus One, the latest in a line of Android-powered phones and the first that will have Google’s brand name on it.

I don’t expect that the phone will be the real news (if you do, you can already read Engadget’s review and other news about it on Techmeme).

What is?

That Google is expanding its reef.

To understand what I mean by that, you should go back and read Dave Winer’s post about how some things in the tech industry are like coral reefs: that is that they are powerful for the ecosystem that they enable.

Most of us can see that Google’s reef is increasing right underneath our feet. They even, just a few months ago, turned on a new dashboard page so you can see just how much stuff you are using of Google’s. My page already has 20 entries on it. Scary how much of Google’s stuff we use.

So, how is Google’s reef expanding?

Well, a startup in Bangalore India that was born just this morning (I’m the first blog to link to them) is usually not the kind of thing you’d pay attention to, but I’ve been playing with MailBrowser, which is a Gmail plugin for Firefox. It promises to be like Xobni or Gist, but for Gmail and Google contacts.

In their intro blog post MailBrowser says they created it because they wanted all the cool features of Outlook but they didn’t want to “go back” to Microsoft. Here’s a video demo of their plugin.

Now MailBrowser (Twitter account here) is just one tiny example of how Google’s reef is attracting developers from around the world. MailBrowser’s founder, Rohit Nadhani, told me he’s bootstrapping the company but will focus 2010 on a few areas: 1. he’s waiting for Google’s Chrome to get more APIs so that he can build his product on Chrome too. Right now it only works in Firefox and IE. 2. He’s betting on Google’s contacts API and he’s shoving metadata about each person into Google’s contacts. Oh, that sounds like a Facebook competitor! And soon he’ll add info from Twitter and Facebook and attach them to each contact inside Gmail, er, Google Contacts. Yes fans we have an identity war underway but that’s only one small piece of the reef that Google’s building.

Now, back to the phone. See, if you add data about your friends and business contacts to Google’s contacts, won’t that help make your mobile phone more useful? More useful than, say, a mobile phone from Apple? Or Nokia? Or Microsoft?

Damn straight it will be.

Let’s swim over to another part of the Google Reef. The part everyone knows about: search. Have you tried searching for your name lately? I have some tricks to finding more info about people. Let’s try it when searching for Steve Rubel, shall we? Here, add the words “google profile” to a search for Steve Rubel. What do you find? His Google Profile, of course. In it you’ll see where he posts stuff, and what services he uses. Now, what if Google added a news feed to this? Wouldn’t that be very similar to Facebook or Twitter or FriendFeed? Click on his contact info tab. Notice what’s there? His gmail address. Oh, Steve is on the reef! By the way, did you know you can add the word “Twitter” onto a search for someone and you’ll find their Tweets? Try it with Steve Rubel. It doesn’t work with everyone, but soon it will.

OK, let’s swim over to another part of the reef. Welcome to the part known as Google Docs and Spreadsheets. Just two days ago I listened into my wife telling a friend of hers how to create a resume. Her friend wasn’t yet on Gmail, and didn’t know about online office systems. But instead of trying to get her friend to use Microsoft Office, Maryam said to go to Google Docs and look at the templates there, many of which have resume builders. Quite nice. It is this ubiquity which is winning Google converts. Notice that not once in this conversation did an objection to not having as many features as Office come up. I didn’t even know that Google’s docs had templates that users can share with each other. Google’s reef is so big now no one person can have seen it all.

Finally, let’s head back to the phone part of the reef and get ready for today’s announcements, which happen at about 10 a.m. Pacific Time at Google’s headquarters. I’ll be tweeting from there, and so will the rest of the tech journalists and blogger types. You can watch all that on my Twitter list of tech journalists.

What do I like best about my Android phone when compared with iPhone? Google Maps are dramatically better — when driving around it shows turn-by-turn navigation and speaks to you, plus has photos of what your destination looks like and a much nicer UI than exists on the Apple device.

It will be interesting to see if Google can expand on its lead here in other places in the phone (and if it can get developers to build the best versions of their apps for its platform instead of Apple’s). If it can, I’m not so sure that Apple needs to worry because Apple is a far sexier company than Google is, but who does need to worry is everyone else. Why? Because Google is building a reef and it’s a far more interesting reef than any that RIM, Nokia, or Microsoft have.

Today’s announcements at Google will be very disappointing if you compare to the way Apple announced the iPhone. The BBC even told me that pro video cameras aren’t being allowed in, which tells me even Google knows that today’s announcements really aren’t that sexy and don’t warrant being on the evening news.

But if you look for evidence of reef expansion Google’s announcements today will be quite interesting indeed. See you at 10 a.m.


  1. I can't access Dave Winer's original post at right now, but what a great way to explain the power that is Google, and a very relevant way to look at Google's announcement today. I love/hate my iPod touch, and love/hate being so tied into Google – I'll wait until the new iPhone is released, and see how Android does until then and decide which love outweighs which hate.

  2. A home run Scobleizer! Google just seems to get better and better. As an Apple fanboy it is great for me to see as it keeps the folks in Cupertino on their toes.

  3. quote “Now, back to the phone. See, if you add data about your friends and business contacts to Google’s contacts, won’t that help make your mobile phone more useful? More useful than, say, a mobile phone from Apple? Or Nokia? Or Microsoft?

    Damn straight it will be.”

    I kow you already probably know this, but Google actually bought Microsoft Exchange servers to sync contacts , calendars and gmail with the iPhone. Although the calendar and the email syncing aren't ideal, the contacts syncing *is*!

    But the funny thing here is that it's a *Microsoft technology* used to sync data from a *Google platform* to an *Apple hardware*. Get it? It's a beautiful marriage of the three biggest players in tech today.

  4. Taking a higher level approach to today's news makes a lot of sense to me, Robert, especially given that as sexy as the Nexus One may be, it's not the disruptive smartphone that many pundits might have expected. It's expensive and, at least from the deep review that Engadget posted, not as good as the Droid in a couple of key ways. That said, it's a terrific upgrade from the G1 and I imagine we'll see a lot of them in the coming months.

    I'm glad is back up, so I could review that metaphor. Winer wrote it about Twitter but applying it to Google is even more apt. Jeremiah Owyang was spot on last year in anticipating the next great social network, driven by email. You draw the distributed strands together well in describing what it may look like, in terms of Profiles, activity streams and location data.

    When US CIO Kundra announced that the federal government would be trying a pilot for OpenID last year, I wrote that it ushered in an “identity economy.” There's enough real conflict in the world that avoiding yet another metaphorical “tech war” felt desirable. That said, it's not hard to see how competitive it could become for online identity providers. Offering the best privacy management tools would be a competitive differentiator, which is one reason both Yahoo and Google set up dashboards. (Anticipating regulation may be another.)

    This “Google reef” may also bring another comparison to Microsoft: at what point will governments push back on the increasing power that the online giant holds over the data of citizens and business?

    2010 is already looking like one of the most interesting years in tech ever, given the pace of events in January.

  5. Aren't coral reefs endangered? Too few people care about the world's largest living animal (Australia's Great Barrier Reef). Probably because they can't see it and how so many other things depend on it. Until it is too late, and global warming kills it all. Heck, they argue about whether global warming is even real. Perhaps they can do so because the reef is hidden from view below the ocean. So few see it.

    Does the analogy hold that far? Can a reef below the ocean stay competitive?

    Your suggestion that a more open and social web could compete with Facebook and Twitter seems to discount the fact that few others see the possibility, and no one can yet use this imagined alternate reality. I fear the global warming of Facebook and Twitter balkanization and walled gardens may choke off the social reef of the future — before it ever grows into something that we each interact with on a daily basis.

  6. The phone is an interesting plot twist b/c I think it is them becoming the fish, not just the reef. They are competing with the very people that ensure their reef is the most populated. Will apple keep them as the default search engine on iphone? How will motorola feel about droid long term? It might be they are so powerful that people will just be forced to deal with them, but I am not sure why they are straying from just building a reef.

  7. I respectfully disagree, Robert. You picked up on one startup in India, and a Profiles feature that no one with a Facebook account would really want to use… How does that equal breakthrough success for Google again?

  8. This is an awful analogy and Winer has the formation of coral reefs completely wrong. It kind of _wrecks_ his metaphor for me. Reefs grow slowly over millions of years and are the collective growth of innumerable small individual polyps. The polyps don't need a sunken ship to grow and ships actually make a comparatively poor substrate for sessile organisms.

    A more apt (but less quaint) analogy is that Twitter is like a hydrothermal vent. Erupting comparatively quickly in a place no one predicted generating a lot of heat and nutrients that supports myriad life forms but is just as likely to disappear quickly into the dark (only to reappear dramatically in another place probably not too far away). Or if you want to be more macabre, Twitter (and by extension Google) are like dead (fail?) whales. Their carcasses appear unpredictably in the oceans but can create an oasis of life in an otherwise barren abyssal plain and are ecosystems with unique, specialized organism that are rarely found anywhere else.

    But then again it's just a metaphor.

  9. I did that Google Profile search thing with my name and my Google Profile page did not show up until midway down the page but point taken.

    The reef analogy is dead on.

  10. They didn't even send you a pre-release Nexus One. I guess being a mouth piece for a mid-western hosting company doesn't afford you much valley cred.

  11. When you look at how things have evolved for Google, you need to think further than just one concept at the time.
    When Google launched Chrome (browser), some thought it was just another browser, but it came bundled along with a task manager, and some understood (here I'm boasting) that it was a test run for ChromeOs. That's just an example amongst many others. Gtalk, Wave, Google Profile, all linked together look indeed like the seeds for a social product.

    Search is now just another feature of the Google Multiheaded Creature, whose, to my mind is planning to become THE vortex for online data/persona.

    [advertize blog here]

  12. But the link from the BBC story about the Nexus is to, which made me smile, wryly.

    They do mention what, to me, seems the most important news about the phone, if it is true.

    <<Google has voice-enabled all text boxes on the device, which means that users can put together an e-mail message or tweet by speaking into the phone rather than typing text on the touch screen.>>

    If this works then this could be the massive differentiator. Using voice to control the non phone functions on a phone has been a breakthrough I have been waiting for.

  13. Haha, bio geek ;)
    Thanks for the lesson on reefs though and a wonderful analogy (although most of us don't get to see geothermal ecologies too often, making it harder to relate to).

  14. We each endeavor to take minimal actions which lead to extraordinary value for those around us. Pointing out Dave's metaphor and making one of your own is a wonderful example of small actions which lead to echoing ideas, that change slightly with each bounce.

    Well said.

  15. While I appreciate what Google offers and the vast array of things one can do with it all and the ubiquity, I feel a little trepidation at the same time with the control that Google has over the sheer vastness of the data that flows through their servers. There is a huge trust issue there for me.

  16. I am personally hoping that the “Spirit of Evan Williams” will prevail after all it was Williams whose Pyra Labs created Blogger and if history should repeat a second time, a Twitter-Google merger would IMHO be the ultimate reef. Of course such a merger for Facebook would be more G-reef than a new reef.

    The benefit of me reading through this today is actually to bring me back to a sense of what ecology is:

    As David Suzuki always states and this article states, “eco” means home and the reef analogy works well here so long as we can appreciate both the nature of interdependence as well as bringing light to self-organization capacity of human beings especially when traditional barriers or divisions are removed.

    We still don't teach people to think this way today, but we are asking a lot more people to work this way – and if the reef analogy makes people more aware of anticipating consequence and also see these new interconnections, then what we have actually will have accomplishing is a better way of looking after our collective “home”.

    This is not a technological analogy, it applies to all forms of intelligence ecologies and as such I have not written this comment to tell but simply to think. The Google reef I agree is big but it's bigness is as much how it changes the way we work, as it is how it changes our home.


  17. I think i have heard Webyog long before… Which startup that you say just born this morning?
    I even use their Webyog SQL long time ago.

  18. Google has made a big effort to create an open yet powerful platform of APIs ( and tools like AppEngine . This has enabled people like Mailbrowser and Socialwok ( to create services that integrate with Google. The ecosystem will continue to grow given the increasing number of apps from Google

    Socialwok is a social networking service integrated with Google that provides Google Apps domains and google accounts, a facebook for business. Rob wrote about Socialwok last year
    Google Enterprise Blog on Socialwok
    Check out the article