A few months ago I had lunch with an old friend. As is often the case we were talking technology and, specifically, what new apps we were using. He was especially excited about the release of the Google Translate iPhone app.
After having our collective minds blown by the possibilities of the app, which translates speech or text across multiple languages, he made a remark that I haven’t been able to shake:
Facebook would never make something like this.
I was reminded of his comment as I woke up to news of the devastating earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan overnight. Within moments of the tragedy, Google’s Crisis Response team jumped into action with technology that helps people find others or share information about people they’ve found via their Person Finder service. They’re intent isn’t to to serve up ads next to names in the search results, their intent is to use technology to organise information in a time its most needed.
Which is why I haven’t been able to shake his comment. It just seems so loaded with connotations about who Google and Facebook are as companies.
It suggests that when Google is at its best they’re biting of huge technical challenges. Sometimes these huge challenges are clearly monetizable like Android, Google Maps, or YouTube. And, sometimes, monetizing them isn’t so clear but they’re just too cool or useful not to do like the body browser, the art project, or the self driving car. It also suggests that Google is at its worst when trying to keep up with, or copy others, they view as competitive like Facebook, Foursquare, or Twitter where a huge technical challenge isn’t at the heart of those services success.
The other side of his assertion is that Facebook wouldn’t build something like Google Translate, which suggests that Facebook at their best is not about technical challenges, but something else. Its easy to say that Facebook, at their best, is about solving big social challenges or organising information on people. I do think Facebook at their best is when they act as an enabling platform and get out of their users way.
Enabling companies to connect with their customers, enabling developers to build unique experiences for users on Facebook’s social graph or enabling citizens to organise and effect change. Facebook at its worst? Similar to Google. When they get lusty about data sets and application spaces they see other start ups winning in like Groups, Q&A, Location and Comments and disregard their role as a platform.
In the end, I don’t think we’ll see Facebook build something as cool or technically challenging as Google Translate. Its not who they are. And, if you’ve taken anything away from hanging out here at BRYCE DOT VC, it’s that the people and companies who stay true to who they are come out on top.