The Google Store Opportunity by Mark Stone

February 2013. Last week rumors surfaced that Google will be opening Google Store retail establishments in time for Christmas shopping 2013. This is a terrific idea. I was struck by what a great opportunity this is for Google while listening to a Planet Money podcast: "Why Buying a Car Is So Awful." By contrast, you know what isn't awful? Visiting a Harley Davidson dealership. What does this have to do with Google? Let me connect the dots for you.

As you head west on Highway 108 in California into Tuolomne County, you're passing through one of the emptiest parts of the state. The nearest interstate highway is more than an hour away, and Oakdale, the last town you passed through, is more than 30 miles behind you. You return to civilization when you roll into Jamestown, population 950. Not exactly a metropolis. And yet just about the first thing you see in Jamestown is a Harley Davidson dealership.

Why would Harley Davidson put a dealership in such a remote location? It can't possibly be for the expected volume of sales. And yet the choice of location is quite deliberate. Harley Davidson is one of the most iconic American brands, and one that has arguably stood up to Japanese competition far better than its four-wheeled brethren in Detroit. The essence of that brand is an appeal to American individualism, linking the historic idea of the frontier to the modern notion of the open road. A "hog" isn't just a mode of transportation; it's an escape, a hobby, and a lifestyle statement.

As a lifestyle statement, Jamestown fits the Harley image perfectly. It is here that the east-west Highway 108 meets the north-south Highway 49. 49 traverses the California gold rush country in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. This foothills town is so evocative of the Old West that it was, for many years, a home for Hollywood film studios shooting westerns - everything from The Texan (1919) to Clint Eastwood's anti-western Unforgiven (1994), and including Gary Cooper's classic performance of frontier individualism, High Noon.

Of course the moral of High Noon is that individual triumph must be rooted in community. For Harley Davidson, the Jamestown location isn't just brand reinforcement; its also about community. Highway 49 is a mecca for bikers, with its winding mountain roads, scenic views of the Central Valley, and sprinkling of former gold rush towns like Jamestown. Indeed, Harley Davidson has many of these dealerships in otherwise remote locations, that are there to be a community destination and gathering place as much as anything. If they happen to sell some bikes too that's great, but the main point is to promote and support the biker lifestyle and community of people engaged in that lifestyle.

Which brings me to Google. Many people have heard of Google's "Don't be evil" philosophy. And geeks are certainly acquainted with Google's open source heritage. Openness more broadly is a strategic choice on Google's part. That's why any hardware maker can produce an Android device, even Kindle devices that compete directly with Google. That's why there are side loaded APKs, an Amazon market, and a Nook market, rather than the Google Play being the one single source for Android apps. That's why sites from Zillow to Runkeeper integrate with Google Maps. Its why the Google Fiber project in Kansas City can be both a good (for Kansas City) and a pragmatic (for Google share holders) act.

So Google does have a distinct brand image, but it's a subtle brand to anyone other than hardcore geeks. Can that imagine resonate with a general public that only encounters Google online? Sure. But a physical presence, a destination for face to face interaction, would greatly enhance Google's ability to project that image beyond the core.

As Google expands from a narrow set of online services centered around search to a broader technology company with a significant consumer electronics presence, it becomes a brand that stands for a lifestyle. Google is at the center of a community of users gradually embracing that lifestyle. Yet -- to paraphrase -- all community is local. Google needs to make the pivot that Harley Davidson made so many years ago, to not only meet users in their communities, but to create destinations that facilitate and enhance those communities.

Two intersecting lines in closing:

  • The fabric of a community is not homogeneous.
  • Openness breeds complexity.

For all the good Eric Raymond did in creating an approachable metaphor for open source with his landmark essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar he did a huge disservice, perhaps unintentionally, by painting a picture of open source as a big homogeneous mob with a flat hierarchy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Community structures in general, and open source in particular, tend to be heterogeneous and hierarchical, as I've argued elsewhere. There are tribal elders who keep expert knowledge, and key influencers who transfer knowledge and facilitate communication within and across community boundaries. Few tightly interactive communities have more than 6 to 12 members, as Fred Brooks eloquently argued almost 40 years ago. Larger communities are loose couplings of these tight interaction groups, and understanding and managing those couplings is the key to turning a community from passive to collaborative.

Once you understand that communities have hierarchy and structure, you understand that communities benefit from having a center. By extension, physically placed communities benefit from a centrally organizing brick and mortar presence. I have seen this first hand, for example, when I worked in independent bookstores during their heyday.

Google has created an amazing ecosystem of inter-operating pieces. While the openness behind that interoperability is empowering, the complexity is also daunting. Want to know what a rich system of interoperating and interchangable technologies looks like? Take a peek in your local Radio Shack or drop in on your local PC repair shop. While someone like my father-in-law -- ham radio operator and PC enthusiast since the TRS80 days -- is at home here, for the general public these establishments are somewhere between daunting and depressing. The experience of going to such a place is about as fun as going to the car dealership.

But that depressing experience is the legacy of a bygone era, a time when the problems and burdens of consumer electronics made it complicated. Google's ecosystem is remarkably problem-free. With a strong Linux foundation, the technology is effectively virus free, and with the power of Google search behind everything, no piece of information is ever truly lost (that was -- and still is -- Gmail's killer advantage). This ecosystem offers complexity born of possibility and opportunity. But where is the destination to help users realize this potential? Those with an affinity for things shiny and white may be looking for the equivalent of a BMW dealership. Not me. Where is the Harley dealership of my digital lifestyle? That's what I want.

As I look around my neighborhood, especially looking at small neighborhood businesses, I'm always surprised at how under-utilized Google is. Why wouldn't you use Gmail for business email? Or Google calendar? If you are paying any significant amount at all for phone service, then you haven't really looked at Google Voice. While I think the desktop computer still has a limited role, I can no longer imagine why anyone would buy a laptop over a Chromebook. And it isn't a pure Google story, because it's about openness and the ecosystem thus engendered. For example, if your business is paying more than 2.75% in credit card transaction fees, then you haven't seriously looked at Square. In all these cases the main problem is lack of awareness and a lack of technical confidence.

Google offers business solutions, but they aren't highly promoted by Google (you can find links here and here). But there's no army of consultants, professional services, or customer support ready to help consumers and businesses. That's the price of free; what's offered has to be largely self service. And while Google does have a partner program enabling consultants to offer services on Google's behalf, this program is also not well promoted and largely self service. It assumes an existing consulting practice wants to add Google offerings to its portfolio, rather than focus directly on the Google ecosystem itself.

All of these efforts on Google's part are essentially passive, and none of them provide the catalyst that gives impetus to the self-organizing nature of community. And it is that problem that Google Stores will solve: for consumers, for small businesses, and for Google.

If I have a measure of expertise in Google's offerings, I'm much more likely to make the effort to trade on that expertise if I can find a ready audience. As a consumer or small business person, or a leader in a nonprofit or community organization, I'm much more likely to embrace what Google offers if I'm confident that I know where to find local experts. A store provides a vehicle where workshops, classes and presentations can be given, a place where people can try out the full portfolio of Google offerings in real word conditions without risk and with plenty of help. Complexity can be mastered by natural community dynamics. A Google Store provides that small nudge that enables previously disconnected individuals to transform into an organized and self helping community.

If I had to sum up in one phrase what the Harley Davidson brand is, and what makes it distinctively American, I would say: "rugged individualism." Google has its own opportunity to establish itself as an iconic American brand. To sum up in one phrase what I think that brand is, I would say: "technology democratized."

Technology is democratized when the power to control it resides with the individual. While we aren't completely there yet, Google has traveled a long way down this road:

A Google Store would be no small symbol of these ideals. Just as the village green of colonial times was the gathering place that became the birth place of American democracy, a Google Store can be the technology village green where we democratize our digital lives.

Add / view comments.