I’ve been thinking lately about how easy it is to live without Apple products. Sure, they’re the best in the world in each category Apple competes in, but unless you’re already locked into the Cupertino ecosystem, they’re honestly optional technology. You can listen to music on the move, play movies in bed, take your office on the road with you, and concentrate your entire life into a smartphone all without an iPod, iPad, MacBook, or iPhone. There are alternatives. Not so with Google.
In its 18 years of existence, Google has grown from the world’s favorite search engine to the world’s favorite web browser, maps service, email client, mobile operating system, and online video depository. A billion people around the world now use each of Google’s marquee services: Chrome, Google Maps, Gmail, Android, and YouTube. According to Google’s numbers, that’s nearly a third of the global online population, and YouTube reaches more people between the ages of 18 and 49 than any US cable network. Now that it’s celebrating its own 18th birthday, a milestone of maturity among us mortal humans, it’s worth reassessing how deeply Google has integrated itself into our daily lives as they’ve grown more connected with each passing year.
I know this from my own experience, which is now so intricately bound with Google as to make me partially dysfunctional without the trusty, always-on services that the Mountain View company provides. Every word I type lands in either a Google Doc or a Google Keep note. The Chrome browser keeps my most essential bookmarks and settings synced across macOS, Windows, and Google’s own Chrome OS. Because I do so much of my work (and play) on the web, Google is my closest and most immediate ally. I’ve no idea how I would survive without Gmail or Google Maps. Yes, there’s Microsoft’s Outlook and Apple Maps, but neither is as polished as Google’s products, neither is as reliable or trustworthy.
Every tech company aspires to reach the status that Google has achieved with myself and millions others: being an indispensable, practically inevitable part of everyday online life. Amazon and Facebook have come closest to replicating Google’s success, albeit taking markedly different approaches to how they make themselves essential, and Apple also deserves recognition for winning users over with the consistently high-quality integration of its hardware, software, and services.
But still, Google is the one. Google is the company whose apps we all rely on in some form or at some time. Even if you use Bing to search the web on Firefox, and you ignore Google Photos, Gmail, and Drive for Flickr, Yahoo Mail, and Dropbox, eventually someone will send you a YouTube clip, you’ll find the channel interesting enough to subscribe to, and you’ll be ensnared in Google’s incredibly wide net on the web.
The thing that keeps Google relevant is a mix of the ubiquity and quality of its services. Where other companies have sought to keep users walled in, Google has pursued a strategy of being everywhere so that it no longer matters where its users are. It’s the same approach that Microsoft is now taking with its Office suite and various other online services, but it was Google that pioneered and perfected it.
When I think about the device that will define our generation’s technology and the smartphone revolution, I picture an iPhone running Google services. The first time I understood the transformative power of smartphones was when a friend handed me his iPhone 3GS and I explored Google Maps on it. Perfect smoothness from Apple, incredibly useful information from Google. That’s been the core around which all of the past seven years of mobile development have been built. Even today, the first thing I do with a new iPhone is load it full of Google apps. Some of them, things like Google Translate and Google Keep, never get their due credit and attention, but they once again make my life better and Google’s position as everyone’s best online friend so much more secure. It may seem weird that Google is fixing iPhone users’ problems, but Google probably sees them as Google users who simply happen to be on iPhones.
Maybe I’m being a little sentimental on account of it being Google’s birthday today. But I figure that sometimes it’s alright to just gush about the good stuff. Am I forgetting Google Buzz, Google Wave, Google Plus, and this summer’s spectacularly pointless Google Spaces? Not at all. I’ve seen Google make many mistakes, and I remain displeased with its continual tax dodging in Europe, a practice common among tech giants, but still unworthy of their stature and otherwise good repute. And yes, Google’s relationship with its users’ privacy tends to be rather a tense affair.
In spite of its failures and imperfections, I think Google is a force for good in this world. Beyond the practical benefits of its online apps and services, this company has been responsible for some of the wildest, most imaginative research projects in tech. Many of those moonshots have now been decoupled into parent company Alphabet, but Google did take a big chance with its Google Glass smart glasses in 2013, which were basically the fevered geek dream of its founders (and many tech fans around the world). That took a great deal more courage and conviction than Apple’s overblown headphone jack removal. I like that the world has companies willing to invest (and sometimes fail) in their vision of the future, and Google has always been a leader in that respect, with such efforts as Google Fiber, Project Loon, and Project SkyBender.
For me, Google has made navigating the web easier and more pleasant. It’s made exploring foreign cities feel far less daunting. It’s facilitated instant online collaboration with my colleagues. It’s kept me sane while switching between dozens of review devices every year. And it’s done it all for free. With a little bit of effort, I can secure my privacy too, and so long as I remember to diversify by using alternative services like Dropbox, Telegram, and Tidal for at least some of my online needs, I feel pretty comfortable in my close and cozy relationship with Google. I live in a very Googly version of the internet and I'm happier for it.