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This week’s Google reorg shows new CEO Larry Page’s top priorities.Most of them are no surprise. Search (under Sr. VP Alan Eustace) is Google’s core business top traffic draw, and advertising (Susan Wojcicki) is how Google makes money today — and there’s upside in increasing Google’s share of display advertising.
Android (Andy Rubin) and YouTube (Salar Kamangar) were named as top priorities on Google’s last earnings call, and the company’s obsession with catching Facebook in social (Vic Gundotra) has been well documented.
But what is Chrome doing on the list?
Chrome leader Sundar Pichai so important that Google reportedly paid him tens of millions to keep him from leaving for Twitter and promoted him to a Senior VP position, reporting directly to Page.
This seems odd:
- The Chrome browser and OS are free — Google doesn’t earn any direct revenue from them.
- Chrome doesn’t help Google future-proof itself against big trends like mobile browsing (Android) or the rise of Internet video (YouTube).
- The Chrome browser doesn’t hurt a competitor’s business — Microsoft earns no incremental revenue from Internet Explorer.
Maybe if Chrome OS gets much better and actually ships in a product it could eventually someday undercut Microsoft’s Windows business — although that’s an extreme longshot, as the longstanding failure of Linux on the desktop shows.
But the same could be said about Google Apps and Microsoft’s Office and enterprise server business, and Google didn’t promote that division’s leader, Dave Girouard, to a senior VP position.
The reason Chrome is important because Google’s platform is the Web, which is defined by “standards.”
Official standards are usually determined by some group or groups of people sitting around a table and debating and writing papers and so on. That’s what HTML5 started as.
But standards don’t become meaningful until people start using them — these are so-called “de facto” standards.
The bizarre Web layout quirks supported by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6 (and earlier) are a good example of a de facto standard — Microsoft had a browser monopoly, so Web sites had to do things IE’s way. (That has changed as other browsers began providing competition, and IE is now a relatively good citizen when it comes to supporting agreed-upon standards.)
Google needs to have some influence on Web standards to make sure it’s not surprised or locked out of new businesses by some sudden standards shift.
It can participate in discussions like any other big company. But the best way to influence standards is to support the ones you like — and neglect to support the ones you don’t like.
The recent kerfuffle over H.264 is a perfect example. H.264 is a video compression technology used by Apple and many other companies, and is generally accepted as a “standard.” But Google unilaterally stopped supporting it in Chrome a few months ago, objecting because it’s not “open” enough — it is protected by patents and requires royalties.
Two years ago when Chrome had sub-1% market share, this wouldn’t have mattered. But Chrome is now above 11% share, and growing every month.
Expect more of this now that Page is fully in charge again.