Google @10: The Can Opener Innovation Continues

Commentary: Behold the world’s most popular can opener is 10 years old! Or, as it calls itself, Google.

Bet you thought that Google was all about search, but you’d be wrong. Search has always been at the core of what Google does but the Google ‘Can Opener’ is Google’s primary innovation.

You see, Google doesn’t really invent much; it didn’t invent search, it didn’t invent e-mail, it didn’t invent applications in the cloud, online maps or contextual advertising, either.

What Google has done consistently and in a manner that no other group has ever done before is open up the ‘can’ in which applications and technologies work – hence my term the “Google Can Opener.”

Google arguably first became popular as the search engine inside of Yahoo. Google opened up the Yahoo search experience (opened the Yahoo can) to be more relevant for all. Google did not invent search, it opened it up to be more inclusive and more relevant. In the process Google as we all know now, ultimately became more popular than Yahoo itself.

When it comes to money, Google also opened up something that Yahoo had already done. Contextual ads were something that Yahoo had available for years ahead of the creation of Google’s AdWords programs.

The problem with the Yahoo offering, though, was that the barriers to entry were not low enough. I remember well trying to advertise via Yahoo and being scared off by $50 minimums.

In contrast, Google opened up the advertising can with AdWords with no minimums. AdWords changed the advertising landscape by making Internet advertising accessible to anyone. It was and still is a big deal. Making it easier for people to advertise (and to have advertisements on their own sites) is a big deal and one of the greatest achievements of the Google Can Opener.

Until Google’s Gmail came along, the idea of using an online e-mail service as a primary e-mail provider was definitely alive with offerings from Microsoft Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, among others. What Gmail did however, is open up the can of limits to create online e-mail accounts with multiple gigabytes of storage all for free. With Gmail, the Google Can Opener again opened up an enclosed (in terms of storage limits) business and opened up in a way that has forever changed the hosted e-mail industry.

Yahoo and other search engines were always historically relatively closed development environments in that they didn’t have third party developers in a broader ecosystem. Google is and has always been a different animal. The Google Can Opener has been active in the development space too. Look at the myriad APIs that Google offers for all of its core products and how that has opened the can for all.

Google Maps is perhaps the best known of all Google APIs and its use by third party Web sites quite literally helped the term ‘mash up’ to become a reality. By opening the can on it services you can mash up the contents of one can with whatever else you can think of.

Certainly the Google Can Opener has not been successful at everything it has touched. Orkut lags behind FaceBook in the social networking market, Blogger isn’t as popular as WordPress and Google Video was never as popular as YouTube.

That said, the idea of being open and continuing to make openness the primary driver behind all services is what has made Google the most successful 10 year old technology vendor of our generation.

Google has taken other people’s ideas, opened them up, made them better and extended them in ways previously unimaginable. Rather than just being a search engine, Google has become an engine of innovation that had previously been for the most part stuck in a can.

As it turns out you can build a better mousetrap, or as I’ve argued – a better can opener.

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