Larry Page's "Beautiful" New Google

By Sarah Lacy , written on January 25, 2012

From The News Desk

Yesterday, we wrote about Larry Page's Search-Plus-Your-World ultimatum and much of the buzz was around the "or work somewhere else" part. But our source emphasized another word he used. "Beautiful."

According to sources, that word has been bandied about Google quite a bit lately, and is turning up again and again in the company's recent public comments too.

Back in December, Page said, "All of us at Google want to create services that people in the world will use twice a day just like a toothbrush. And we strive to make those services beautiful, simple and easy to use. That way we can provide huge benefit to the world."

Vic Gundotra, Google's senior vice president of social, tied this explicitly to the social strategy, saying, "Four months ago when, when we opened [Google+] to the public, we were not sure what kind of reception we would receive. Expect us to deliver something truly beautiful. We've only just begun to work on that promise."

I think we'd all consider "simple" and "easy to use" as hallmarks of Google's product aesthetic, as is "clean," "spartan," "stark" and even "geeky," given the multi-colored logo and large, whimsical sculptures that dot the campus.

But the emphasis on "beautiful" seems a departure. Particularly from Google's more gritty throw-it-out-in-beta-and-see-what-sticks past.

Is it just me or does it seem like the Google brain trust all got copies of the Steve Jobs biography for Christmas?

If you watch Google's recent Chrome commercials the link between what Apple has built in your mobile Web-world and where Google wants to take your computer-Web world is even clearer.

From Apple:

From Google:

No doubt, everyone wants to be the next Steve Jobs at this point-- particularly after Apple's insane quarter yesterday. Beauty sells. Beauty is sexy right now. Beauty is the story reporters want to write. Beauty is what investors want to buy. Beauty is poised to be the buzz word that "innovative" was a few years ago in business circles.

But for Apple's customers, beauty was the trade-off we made. We got beauty, but we gave up control and openness. "There's an app for that," means, "You don't need anything outside the Apple ecosystem."

Google's new tagline "The Web Is What you Make of It," and its commercials showing all the touch points of Google in your day telegraph a similar message. All you need are Google's "beautiful" integrated products to enjoy the Web.

That's psychologically very different from the company Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt built. Google disrupted the portal-based search market precisely because the company sent you away from their site-- something that was unthinkable as a business strategy at the time. Google brilliantly saw value in being that trusted utility to navigate the Web. It was the router of eyeballs, not the company trying to monopolize them like Yahoo, AOL or MSN.

But the TV ads and recent messaging from Page show Google as something very different. It shows Google as the brand you never leave.

A beautiful walled garden-- much like what Apple has built on mobile and what Facebook is increasingly trying to build through Facebook Connect. Given that's what competitors are doing and that Google needs a new growth area, it's not a shock. But it's a clear psychological departure for the company, and it's being championed by the top down.

Why does this matter? Because Google is the company that most of the world trusts to access the Web, and the Web used to be a static thing. If each of us searched for a term, we'd all get the same result. But social is inherently personalized. Each of us sees a different Facebook homepage and a different Twitter stream. The more the view of the world Google gives us is integrated into social, the less we're seeing "the" Web and the more the Web is something fungible; it's what "we're making of it."

Put another way, is Google moving from being a company that organizes the world's information to one that organizes the information of "your" world?

As I said two days ago, either way, Google needs to come clean with users and communicate if the direction of the company has dramatically changed. And I plan on keep bringing it up until they do. Google's search engine is too important to how we all get news and information to be so coy and quiet in the face of recent evidence that its values are changing.

I'm not the only one worried. Check out this post from this former Googler who wonders whether Google is having its "Microsoft 1995" moment. From the post:

"In the early 1990s Microsoft didn't understand the Internet. Windows didn't even support TCP/IP, you had to download third party drivers like Trumpet Winsock to go online. And there was certainly no web browser, Netscape was going to sell that to users. Then in 1994–1995 Bill Gates executed an admirable turnaround at Microsoft with help from folks like Sinofsky and Allard. They quickly built a TCP/IP stack and a web browser and bundled it with Windows 95 and NT. Gates' memo The Internet Tidal Wave was the visionary document that explained it all. That rapid embracing of the Internet saved Microsoft as a company; they would have been doomed otherwise.

In the late 2000s Google didn't understand social media. They had some clumsy efforts like Orkut and Buzz but you had to go to MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or RenRen to get social. Then in 2011 Larry Page executed an admirable turnaround at Google, with help from folks like Gundotra and Horowitz. They quickly built Google+ and bundled it with the primary search engine. There's no visionary memo about Google+ in public but you can bet they have a very clear and strong strategy internally. The rapid embracing of social media is unprecedented for Google; it's commendable." I'm not trying to beat up on Google, but you can't overemphasize how much this shift in strategy would change how users interact with the Web and how Web startups get users. Google is our gateway to the Web, because it's never tried to control the Web, shape the Web or make it beautiful.

As someone who goes to Google more times a day than any other site, I hope I'm wrong about how deep this change in philosophy is among Google's leadership. I already have two companies who make sense of my world for me: Twitter and Facebook. I don't need a third. I need a clean, reliable search engine and email service I can trust.