RealTime IT News

Google Takes a Risk

You've come to love Google, but will you trust Google, too? More to the point, will you continue to love Google through the rough times, or will you blame it if things go wrong in your life?

Love-hate relationships are not just for people; high-tech companies that win the hearts of their users can be at greater risk than companies that merely provide a simple service and stay in the shadows.

Google has survived its first brush with massive break-up when it revealed Gmail and there were hints Google might betray its users by sharing their most intimate keywords with potential advertisers. Google had some explaining to do and, like a partner interested in a long-term relationship, it said it would examine its behavior.

However, Google didn't really change its behavior. Its Gmail computers still sift through your e-mail to find rich keywords that match relevant advertising. Trust was tested, but not broken.

Now, the company is wading further into its customers' lives with Google Desktop Search, a utility that will index your hard disk and find text in almost any type of file, including word processing files, spreadsheets, cached Web pages, e-mail and even IM histories. Still in its very first beta version, the product seems impossibly good. Results appear with breath-taking speed. And it is so complete in its search that it's making some people nervous. Some are raising alarms.

An NPR broadcast called it "potentially a dangerous invasion of privacy." An Associated Press story quoted security experts warning that users could unwittingly let others see sensitive information.

The dangers are twofold: if your mother sits down at your computer and runs Google search, she may find things she wasn't supposed to know about you. Of greater concern is if your index file ends up in the hands of a stranger who might use it to unearth details that could lead to identity theft.

Those are real risks, but the only reason they're a greater threat than the software already on your computer is that Google is much better at doing search than the tools you now have. The operating system search tools that come with Macs, Windows and Linux systems are slow and sloppy by comparison.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with what Google is doing, but it is increasing the odds that sensitive data can be found. And if you haven't protected your sensitive data with passwords, firewalls and anti-virus software, you were at risk long before you installed Desktop Search. An unprotected computer is at far greater risk from viruses that turn your system into a zombie than anything Google is doing.

Still, Google is taking a risk with the software. It didn't force you to have secrets, but it will be blamed when those secrets come out.

People have relationships with software that are as much about emotions as they are about results. It is a lesson that other technology companies have learned under fire. AOL, once loved by millions of subscribers, grateful that the company delivered a safe, easy Internet, now suffers as that environment is fraught with risk. AOL now feels compelled to give free anti-virus tools because when AOL customers sneeze, it's AOL that gets sick.

And, of course, there's the example of Microsoft. In its early days, Microsoft was admired, emulated, even loved. Microsoft products became intimately linked to the user experience, and when people have a bad experience with those products, Microsoft suffers, too.

Until now, Google's main experience with frustrated users came from webmasters angry that Google would not rank their Web pages higher. Google's vast popularity means that hackers are sure to spend a little time targeting Google disk indices the same way they targeted AOL's mail system and Microsoft Outlook's address book format.

Now that Google is a public company, it is not enough for it to have a great service. It needs to grow at an aggressive rate. If it doesn't, those shareholders who have seen only gains out of Google's stock are going to be just as disappointed as owners of AOL and Microsoft stock who haven't seen gains in almost five years.

Google became a solid gold brand when almost everyone who "googled" had a pleasant surprise. It will be harder to keep the brand so beloved when googling your friends' and neighbors' hard disks leads to unpleasant surprises.