2010: The year Google fell to earth

Remember when Google could do no wrong? Those days now feel like ancient history.

I think 2010 will be remembered for a handful of really big stories, including the rise of tablets, the dominance of Facebook, and the emergence of a fifth column of Web troublemakers who can no longer be ignored, from Anonymous/4chan to WikiLeaks.

[ Along with Google Wave, Cringely mourns (or not) the passing of other former Web stalwarts over the last year in "RIP, AltaVista and Google Wave; we hardly knew ye." | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

But it will also be remembered as the year Google proved that not only did it have feet of clay, it had also stepped into something really nasty -- more than once.

Consider if you will the following examples:

China. Remember that principled stand Google took on China back in January? About how it would have to "review the feasibility of [its] business operations in China" after Chinese agents hacked into its accounts, and how it refused to do business with repressive regimes that censor search results? Fast-forward to July, when Google announced, "We are very pleased that the government has renewed our ICP license and we look forward to continuing to provide web search and local products to our users in China." Turned out that those business operations were more feasible than originally thought. In fact, Google came up with 1.3 billion reasons why Chinese censorship wasn't so bad after all.

The Nexus One. Screw the telecoms and intercourse the iPhone. Google was going to both create a groovier and completely open smartphone and kill the telecom's stranglehold over the handset market by selling the Nexus One direct to consumers. The problem? Google had no clue how to sell direct to consumers. In fact, the company was kind of lousy at it. Within six months, Google's Nexus One store was taking a dirt nap. It hasn't been missed.

Wi-Fi spying. Google would never, ever spy on its customers. Certainly the Googlers believed that. Then it turns out Google Street View vans were slurping up data off open Wi-Fi networks all around the world. Oops. The fallout from that one -- class-action suits, governmental inquiries, international sanctions, and the like -- is still coming. The worst part: Google was doing this without even realizing it. What other data is Google hoovering up that it -- and no one else -- yet realizes?

Google Wave. Announced with great fanfare in May 2009 as the Next Big Thing in unified communications, mixing email with group scheduling, chat, project management, and ballroom dancing. (I made that last one up -- did you notice?) Closed with a whimper in Aug. 2010. The problem? Most mere mortals had no clue what Wave was or how to use it. In other words, Google was unable to communicate what its great communications tool was supposed to accomplish.

Google TV. They were finally going to bring the power of the InterWebs to the world's sofa tubers in a way people could actually use. But content providers balked at handing over the goods, and early reviews of the products were less than lavish. Now the products have missed the holiday rush and Google is asking display and set-top makers not to demo Google TVs at CES in January until the software is a bit less beta. Can you say Must Flee TV?

Meanwhile, whenever Eric Schmidt opens his mouth to make another pronouncement about what Google knows about us, he frightens the children and makes even their parents want to hide under their beds. Consider this chilling statement Schmidt made at the last Mobile World Congress in February:

These networks are now so pervasive that we can literally know everything if we want to. What people are doing, what people care about, information that's monitored, we can literally know it if we want to, and if people want us to know it.

No wonder the forces opposing Google are massing for a counterattack. Expect the "Google is a monopoly that must be stopped" rhetoric to ramp up significantly in 2011, especially now that Google is in the process of gaining regulatory approval for its purchase of ITA Software, maker of software used by flight search engines. The move is opposed by everyone in the online travel biz who isn't Google, including Microsoft.

Yes, Microsoft is complaining about the Google monopoly. It has really come to that. And Google has no one to blame but itself.

What in your humble opinion is the worst Google gaffe? Post it below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "2010: The year Google fell to earth," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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