This has been a week of ever more wild speculation among ISP bloggers. A single page on Google's Site, which tantalizingly referred to "Google WiFi" at "certain locations in the San Francisco Bay Area" spurred the rumor that Google was poised to join the ranks of Internet service providers. Google also got sucked into the other prevailing rumor, that Microsoft is circling the waters around America Online, looking for an adoptive sibling for its MSN service. With the much-vaunted rivalry between Google and Microsoft, it's only natural that people would assume that Google, too, has AOL in its crosshairs.
The big question is this: Does it make sense for Google to even consider providing wireless access? I say no.
At this point, the actual news about Google WiFi is a lot more mundane. The company finally fessed up about a free wireless access service at two locations near its headquarters. It's nothing but a community outreach project, according to a Reuters news report. In the report, a company spokesperson described Google's plans for the service as "collecting feedback from users. We'll determine next steps as the product evolves." So unless you happen to want to get online at a pizzeria or gym in Mountain View, California, Google WiFi amounts to a big fizzling nothing at this point.
The big question is this: Does it make sense for Google even to consider providing wireless access? I say no.
Portal or access?
Now, I'm all for businesses diversifying a little, but tying a portal and an online access network together is so 1980s. I remember getting online during the 1980s. I used to love dialing up CompuServe, the proprietary online service that predated consumer Internet access by 15 or 20 years. It had content, it had e-mail, it had a lot of local dial-up numbers, and everybody I wanted to know was on it all the time. It was great. And it was eaten up by America Online--and killed. America Online, in the meantime, has been eking out its time as a proprietary network and content provider and portal, but it's a model that's so antiquated at this point, I'm surprised anyone is still considering it.
You can get anything Google has to offer from any Internet service provider by typing the mighty www.google.com in your browser. You can get e-mail (and Gmail) at any ISP, too. Google News, Froogle shopping, and all the other little Googlets you can click to from the search portal's main page are all available to all comers, so it's not as if people need to be driven there by using Google as their ISP.
Google is known as a portal and a pretty darn good one at that. And it's burned into people's minds as a place to go when you're online, not a way to get online in the first place.
Google is known as a portal and a pretty darn good one at that. And it's burned into people's minds as a place to go when you're online, not a way to get online in the first place. Heck, google has even become a verb with a very clear meaning: to search for something online. You can't go muddying the waters by trying to make googling mean something completely different--like the act of switching tables in your local eatery until you get a decent enough signal to pick up your e-mail. We have a perfectly acceptable term for that already: the intransitive verb to panera. (After me, class, "I panera, I paneraed, I will panera...")
Don't be an AOL
Nobody thinks of Google the way they think of AOL, and that's a good thing. Most of AOL's sourest grapes over the years have come from the problems with its network. How many people who proudly repeated the I-love-the-'90s mantra "AOL sucks" were driven to AOL by constant busy signals during the rapid ISP expansion years of the mid-1990s? And how many people can Google expect to curse its name when their connection drops?
Of course, I'm not exactly an online access entrepreneur, but as I look at the people who have been over the years, I think that an online access network is not a great market for a huge name in research to be involved with. By all means, let the company sponsor a free municipal network. Let it donate some technology to the cause to earn the right to screw a plaque to a park bench reading "Wireless network sponsored by Google." That would be just dandy. But Google, for goodness sake, don't go tying your name to an Internet access network unless you want your reputation to go the way of AOL's.
So at the moment...
But perhaps it's too early to be considering Google as a Wi-Fi provider. Google WiFi is only a little experiment at the moment, and it may well remain that way. Google encourages its engineers to experiment with lots of ideas: They are supposed to spend a full one-fifth of their time working on individual projects outside the company's core search business, a commitment called the "20 percent project time." Not all of these projects will turn into a Google News or a Froogle, so this Wi-Fi project may never become a full-on Googlet, let alone a core part of Google's business.
I say that would not be a bad thing. How about you?
Should Matt Lake google a better-informed opinion? Let him have it in the TalkBack section below.