How brands go bad: Microsoft vs. Google vs. Amazon

Amazon Google continues to experience rough air as it seeks altitude.  We might think that they would have looked at Microsoft before them.  Microsoft managed to squander a vast amount of brand equity and brand opportunity by acting like the bully on the block, putting the screws to third-party competitors with all the grace and generosity of a Chicago street gang. 

But no.  Google decided to piss off the entire academic world by appearing to disregard copyright.  For a marketing point of view, this is a howler of the first order.  It is harder to imagine a segment better placed to do you harm than the academic world.  They have much too much time on their hands, possess snit sharpened wits, and have access to the minds of the young for four formative years.  Good one, Google.  (Though I must say, I am sympathetic.  Academics with life time security are well compensated.  The state might well say, "your publications belong to the public domain."  Many scientists already act is precisely this spirit.)

Enter Amazon with a program of its own.  None of the Google/Microsoft bullying here.

Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos wouldn’t comment specfically on the Google library program.  But he said, "It’s really important to do this cooperatively with the copyright holders, with the publishing community, with the authors.  We’re going to keep working in that cooperative vein." 

Hey, presto.  This is largely a matter of respect.  The Internet players needs to be seen to be honoring the old technologies (print), the old institutions (universities) and the old content professors (professors), with a nod in their direction.  And surely it can’t be very hard to create a micro payment system that send small amounts of value to the producers.  (One would have thought that this is the kind of thing Google could have banged off in a Sunday afternoon.)  This is about diplomatic gestures, and these don’t have to be expensive.

But no one, not Google, not Microsoft, not Amazon, not Apple has come to terms with the real issue.  At the moment, everyone is looking for the payment model.  As the head of the Authors Guild puts it, "The book industry has to find its equivalent of iTunes." 

Oh, please.  What the industry has to find is its equivalent of iPod.  Until we have some sleek, perfect, deeply useful, "have to have it," "have to hold it" piece of technology for reading digital format, this issue will remain a minor one.  Here’s what we need, a piece of hardware that makes hard copy, ink of paper books look antique and preposterous.  What we need is a piece of technology that is so perfect to the hand and the eye, so good at capturing our "marginalia," so good at helping us extract, organize, store and repurpose the text in question, that we cannot go home again.  What we need is technology that makes a pulp of fiction.

Yes, we still love the feel, the ease, the tangibility of books, but somewhere out there is a piece of technology that does for reading what the computer did for word processing.  And once it is in place (designed by Apple, softwared by Microsoft, supplied by Amazon, with content discovered by Google?), we will go back to "books" with the same astonishment with which we go back to an IBM selectric II typewriter.  These were the ones that made it sound like World War I is taking place in the living room (when it was merely your girl friend writing her thesis).

Will someone please create a reading machine.


Mangalindan, Mylene and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. 2005. Google This: Amazon Plans to See Portions of Books Online.  Wall Street Journal. November 4, 2005, p. B1. 

8 thoughts on “How brands go bad: Microsoft vs. Google vs. Amazon

  1. rkleine

    grant – given your long-tail comments, your assessment of google surprises me. perhaps i’m being dense, but i don’t get the ‘appearance of disregarding copyright.’ google wants to index content and make it searchable. one of the biggest challenges niche (long-tail) authors (which describes just about every academic) face is connecting with their market. google is creating a market-maker for long-tail authors. rather than threatening copyright, google’s project should enable sales that wouldn’t otherwise occur. amazon and university presses stand to benefit from google’s efforts.

    besides, most academics are illiterate when it comes to copyright. how else can you explain that most academic publishers demand — and academics happly yield — ALL rights? any author worth his/her salt (or at least hopes to make money from their words) knows that copyright is divisible; that the same work can be licensed to several publishers for several applications. a stock photographer would only yield all rights to an image in exchange for mega $$$$$.j

    that tirade aside, i agree completely with you that a device that renders dead trees publishing obscelete is long overdue.

  2. K

    The reading machine is coming, and will be printed on your desktop. A great place to start is “When Things Start to Think” by Neil Gershenfeld. The real fun starts when the display and the computer to run it, are both printed on cheap plastic substrates.

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  4. Tom Asacker

    The device exists (or did exist). It was called the Rocket eBook:

    The problem was timing and software. Why? Because people didn’t want to read novels on an LCD screen (they still don’t). But . . . they’ll certainly read blog posts, sports scores, stock performance, etc. Chunks of information, organized and sent directly to a device, now made possible through RSS technology.

    So Grant . . . want to go with me and visit TV Guide and convince them to rebirth and repurpose it? Let me know.

  5. Grant

    Rkleine, Thanks. (Let me know sometime if I have permission to use your first name.) A couple of things. If their intentions were entirely honorable, someone in PR let the side down badly. Otherwise, they would now not be looking at lawsuits from academic publishers. And if they were really interested in brand building, Google would have created something like a micropayment system even for books out of print. If only a kind of microacknowledgment system. Something that helps the lonely academic keep score. This is the unexpected result of frequent flyer systems. Road warriors use them as a measure of accomplishment (and misery). What was created as a metric for one purpose got repurposed very quickly. Anyhow, there were lots of possibilities here, but the most important one was at all costs to avoid the appearance that Google was helping itself to other people’s intellectual appearance. And it failed here. The Google motto, ~don’t be evil~ (I may not have that exactly right, hence the ~ signs) should be “don’t be evil, and make sure that everyone gets that you aren’t evil.” Thanks, Grant

    K, thanks, I had a look at the Sony libre (released in Japan only, but available from to US consumers) and it doesnt appear to have changed since the last time I looked at it. But you’re right something better is coming. But how tragic that this version of the technology should be the creation of Sony, the one corporation that has routinely screwed up the issue of DRM and insisted on treating the consumer as if s/he had made copyright violation a primary life objective. Thanks, Grant

    Tom, that Rocket eBook is a good case in point. For me, it does not have the “must hold, must have” quality that is I think the design advantage that sets the adoption process in motion. This is of course Virginia Postrel territory (and perhaps IDEO and some others), but the leading edge of adoption is I think not the “early adopter.” It’s that thing that happens in the head and heart when a would-be adopter when s/her first lays eyes on an iPod. The several barriers that stand between a new technology and wide adoption are as if suddenly punctured. Great design recruits, great design colonizes. And it never seemed to me that the eBook ever made this effort. But yes we should go to TV guide. Thanks, Grant

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  7. Peter

    In any case, Grant, I think Google’s focus on (owning, analysing, enabling, transporting) information positions the company perfectly for the web revolution we’ve just had, rather than for the next one. The rise of e-commerce, of web services, of social softare, of distributed intelligence, all mean that the web is increasingly about transaction and interaction — ie, doing stuff, and doing it together — rather than about information and communication.

    We computer scientists don’t yet have good theories of interaction and transaction. Without coherent theories, we can’t describe what is happening, and we can’t engineer these systems optimally or manage them well. And yet, in our kiddie steps, computer scientists are ways ahead of people in other disciplines — philosophy, linguistics, economics, political science — who are still focused on theories based on information, not action.

  8. rkleine

    grant – oh, yes, my first name is fair play. thanks for asking first. re. a microacknowledgement system. google has a microacknowledgement system in place already. google scholar provides the scorecard benefity with ‘cited in’ cross links, approximating data previously available only from the ssci. it would seem a trivial matter to extend this system to include books.

    your point re. google doing a piss poor job at managing appearances is well taken.

    i agree w/your assessment of the rocket reader. i was all giddy on first hearing of it. then i saw it. eeeooowww. screen too small. too bulky. and damned ugly. our local public library has several rocket readers that they lend out. rather, that they intended to lend out. no takers. rob.

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