Doing no evil?

Google recently launched The Data Liberation Front. A typically – for Google at least – bold move that has the aim of, and get this, making it easier for users to leave Google and take their data elsewhere. You might at first think this to be a counter-productive move, surely Google wants to stop users leaving and taking data elsewhere, right?  Well, yes, but Google understands that this shouldn’t be at the expense of the user. And is this such a surprising move when we consider the number one principle in Google’s stated corporate philosophy is to ‘focus on the user':

Since the beginning, we’ve focused on providing the best user experience possible. Whether we’re designing a new Internet browser or a new tweak to the look of the homepage, we take great care to ensure that they will ultimately serve you, rather than our own internal goal or bottom line. Our homepage interface is clear and simple, and pages load instantly. Placement in search results is never sold to anyone, and advertising is not only clearly marked as such, it offers relevant content and is not distracting. And when we build new tools and applications, we believe they should work so well you don’t have to consider how they might have been designed differently.

Not only is focusing on the user a – the main? the only? – design principle when creating software, Google is asserting, rightly, that this principle should be applied at the corporate level, as Brian Fitzpatrick explains on the Google Public Policy blog:

At the heart of this lies our strong commitment to an open web run on open standards. We think open is better than closed — not because closed is inherently bad, but because when it’s easy for users to leave your product, there’s a sense of urgency to improve and innovate in order to keep your users. When your users are locked in, there’s a strong temptation to be complacent and focus less on making your product better.

This just makes sense, and directly answers a big question of many users – both private and corporate – of ‘cloud’ based applications, which is, “If I want to leave, can I take my stuff back and put it somewhere else easily?”.  Google has directly tackled this question across its entire range of products.  In fact, perhaps the main reason businesses avoid using cloud-based Customer Relationship Management systems is because they are afraid that they will never be able to get their data back if something else comes along which is a better solution for their organisation.  The other main worry is that the datasuddenly disappears, but that is a separate problem altogether.

One way to picture the problem is this.  For all those millions of people who have stored photos and links with people in Facebook.  How could they easily take that data to MySpace, for instance?  Would Facebook or MySpace actually try to make it easier to move all your account data between each other?  Highly unlikely.

Its not all a selfless sacrifice on the part of Google though.  As Fitzpatrick makes clear, one reason for data liberation is to ensure that those people who are developing Google products stay focused on making those products the best they can be so that users don’t feel the inclination to leave.  But freedom is a two-way street for Google, so the Data Liberation team also has the remit to make it easier for people to bring their data into Google products. You can “escape from” or “escape to” Google as you see fit.

The elephant in the room when it comes to procurement of new software is that data is not easily interchangeable between that software and other directly competing software. The unspoken and deeply arrogant belief of many IT organisations that just because you bought their product today that you will upgrade to the next version tomorrow, and the next version after that, and so on ad-infinitum is certainly an impediment to the overall user experience, a major barrier to innovation, and perhaps vaguely anti-competitive. After all, it is only the software product that is the intellectual property of a software company, not the data we put into it.

It is great that Google is innovating this way, in a fashion typically dismissive of normal corporate conventions, The Data Liberation Front presents a playful solution to what is a very serious issue for many individuals and organisations. It certainly throws the gauntlet down to the rest of the IT industry.  Comrades, we must answer this call to action!

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