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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wednesday morning, Google notified manufacturers of GPS navigation units that their services would no longer be needed. It didn't say so explicitly -- the news came in a corporate blog post about an improved Google Maps smartphone program offering turn-by-turn directions -- but the company didn't have to.

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The imminent arrival of a no-charge navigation service on phones running Google's latest Android software, complete with real-time traffic data and satellite and street-level views of a route, made stand-alone GPS devices look suddenly redundant. GPS manufacturers' share prices promptly fell off a cliff; Garmin's dropped about 16 percent and TomTom's plunged by 21 percent Wednesday.

Wednesday was a not-atypical day for the Mountain View, Calif., Internet giant. Perhaps more so than any other company since Microsoft at its peak, Google can spook competitors and enthrall users just by introducing a product.

You could see the same dynamic in late September, when Google introduced a Web-based fusion of e-mail, instant messaging and collaborative editing called Google Wave-- and hype-intoxicated Web users who weren't necessarily sure what Wave did began groveling for invitations to try it out.

Somewhat like the late-'90s incarnation of Microsoft, Google also now provides an extraordinarily wide range of services. Many are subsidized by the torrent of cash thrown off by its Web advertising business -- but if these new offerings keep you online longer and, therefore, within sight of Google's ads, the company still comes out ahead.

You can easily spend a full day on the Web without leaving its sites or applications: checking e-mail at Gmail, uploading pictures at Picasa, updating your schedule at Google Calendar, looking up an address on Google Maps, watching goofy video clips at YouTube, skimming the headlines at Google News, writing in Google Docs -- and that doesn't count all the Google-hosted ads at many other sites. You could do all this in Google's Chrome browser, then get up to make a call on a phone running Google's Android software.

That is not to say that Google is some reincarnation of the dot-com-era Microsoft. It has yet to engage in such hubristic excesses as co-founding a TV news network, and it hasn't trampled over the antitrust laws. Google avoids locking in users with proprietary data formats or protocols; last month, it set up a site (http://dataliberation.org) to document and promote ways for users to take their data out of (and into) Google services.

As the second person to mention Google in The Post, I can attest that this company has achieved its success honestly--with help from the errors and apathy of competitors.

Gmail, for example, wouldn't have had such a fast start if Microsoft and Yahoo hadn't spent years steadily cutting the features of their free e-mail services. The same goes for Google Maps: Had MapQuest not degenerated into mediocrity under AOL's inept stewardship, users might not have jumped so quickly to a new source of online cartography.

It's also important to remember that Google's ventures don't succeed as much as people think. Google Maps may now be the No. 1 mapping source, according to ComScore's latest figures, but Gmail still trails Microsoft and Yahoo's Web-mail sites.

Google's Picasa may be a fine photo-editing application, but its corresponding photo-sharing site is dwarfed by rivals in ComScore's data. The Google Checkout payment service has drawn less support from Web retailers than PayPal or BillMeLater.

Some Google ventures rank as outright failures. Google Base, an ambitious attempt to set up a marketplace where individual users could buy and sell goods and services, didn't lure the masses away from Craiglist, despite that site's relative technological backwardness. Its Orkut social-networking site's audience isn't even a rounding error in the United States.

In other words, the wizards of Mountain View can't flick other companies off the map with their fingertips. What they can do is leap far enough ahead of competitors in a single product launch to shock them into attention. When those firms draw the appropriate "get better or get lost" conclusion and redouble their efforts, customers should benefit.

This effect may break down when Google steps into markets dominated by firms selling devices instead of software. In the time it takes a manufacturer to usher an improved gadget from whiteboard to circuit board, Google can push out three or four rounds of updates to a Web application.

You shouldn't feel obliged to avoid Google altogether because of this power to upend markets. But you should remind yourself not to discount worthy alternatives just because they're Not Google. There's also much to be said for keeping a part of your online identity -- maybe your photos, maybe your e-mail -- outside of Google. Spread your business around, and one company can't get too comfortable with it.

Living with technology, or trying to? Read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.


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