The rise of Google - should we be worried?

The rise of Google - should we be worried?


We all know that Google is huge and there are more than enough examples of people crying the end is nigh regarding the seemingly insurmountable rise of the one-time search engine. But are they really that big? Do they have that much of a hold over us and should we be worried?

In the cloud

Google operates in what marketers have named "the cloud". Quite what was wrong with calling it the Internet I don't know but hey-ho, it's the cloud. In order to get some idea of how much of this cloud falls into Google's sky we can look at some facts and figures. Firstly there's browser share (see figure 1). Statcounter announced in early October 2010 (the time of writing) that Microsoft's previously ubiquitous Internet Explorer dropped below 50% of global market share.

Google operates in what marketers have named "the cloud". Quite what was wrong with calling it the Internet I don't know

This is enough to make headlines of its own but when you look at where those users have gone, it makes it more interesting. Google's Chrome browser has steadily risen since launch and now has 11% of the share - almost the same percentage as IE has dropped over the same period. Incidentally StatCounter claim their sample data is from over 16 billion hits on websites around the world; so this is no mere minor subset.

Figure 1: Global browser share Sep 2009 - Sep 2010 - StatCounter.comFigure 1: Global browser share Sep 2009 - Sep 2010 - StatCounter.com

Moving on up

It's a similar story when you look at the other key market for Google - mobile. Again we'll use StatCounter as a guide. Google is all about online information and data, and I would imagine that even with mobile devices that is where their interest lies. Statcounter's Mobile OS figures (see figure 2) show that the iPhone has dropped by about 10% over the past 12 months while Android's have rise by a similar amount. I should also say that RIM (the Blackberry) has also risen by around 10% so not all the iPhone's losses are due to migration to Android. That said, Google's product in this market is clearly showing growth in a short period since its launch.

Figure 2: Global Mobile OS share Sep 2009 - Sep 2010 - StatCounter.comFigure 2: Global Mobile OS share Sep 2009 - Sep 2010 - StatCounter.com

Of course Google is much more than these two products. Search, Mail, Video, Photos, Documents, you name it. Many have spoken and warned of the risk of putting so much trust in one company and I would agree with them. The problem as ever is the same thing that causes the downfall of security systems around the world: convenience. Convenience is the weak-link in the chain of security, the mouse that nibbles at the skirting of privacy and the hands that pull away the rug of common-sense. Facebook and Twitter users would not allow just anyone access to their home, but merrily give account access to countless scams and spam-machines because they also offer some convenient way to categorise your followers or friends. Internet banking is only susceptible to attack because the user demands a convenient way to log-in. Give a user a complex password (e.g. with uppercase, lowercase, numbers and punctuation) and most of them ask if they can just use the one they have everywhere else.

It's all too easy

Google capitalises on the culture of convenience

Google capitalises on this culture. Your phone instantly syncs with your online calendar and contacts. Your browser doesn't need a separate search box, just type your query in the address bar. Click a postcode in your Android browser and it will open Google maps with a GPS-led route already worked out. Tap the phone number and you'll be calling them. Did I mention that all this is logged at some level? That your behaviour and actions are fed as statistics to advertisers? The pay-off for all that convenience is that your privacy becomes less private. This is not new and Google does not hide the fact that it does this. In fact most people seem to go along with it as an acceptable risk. I do wonder whether we are like the proverbial frog in a pot. As the water gently heats up will we notice before it's too late. The problem is that I say all this and yet I still use GMail and Google calendar. I have an Android-based phone (and very nice it is too). I have a YouTube account and use Google Webmaster tools to support my own sites and those of my clients.

In the end Google succeed because they are known (or at least thought) to be less "evil" than their competitors; what worries me is that it has taken Firefox years to get the market share it has and Chrome has achieved nearly half that in a year. The Google name and brand is huge and it is becoming trusted. Right now Google do not seem to be doing enough to warrant total mistrust (hello, Oracle) but what if they do in the future. Where are the alternatives to the services Google supplies? Yes they are there but given the dominance of Google, will they still be there if we ever need them?

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Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.