This post – “On Google, and Evil” by John August (HT: Daring Fireball) – got me thinking. August writes about being offered to write a screenplay focused on Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto, but his suggestion that the founders “become evil despite themselves,” a la Animal Farm, goes nowhere. One example of Google’s evil is their search results, increasingly heavy on search-engine-optimized junk sites:
How do these content-grinders make money? Largely through Google ads. Itâ€™s created a situation in which inferior search results make more money for Google. Yes, they still want to organize the worldâ€™s information, but itâ€™s become easier to see the gray text after it: â€œâ€¦so we can sell ads next to it.â€
Here’s the thing that occurred to me: Google doesn’t need to sell ads anymore. It simply doesn’t. It now has enough money to, well, retire.
Google currently has over $33 billion cash on hand. If they took even half of that and endowed a foundation, it would instantly be the 2nd largest foundation in the US. With a little bit of creative accounting and off-loading some assets, it could even become the largest foundation in the world. Google could then get out of the sordid advertising business and focus on organizing information and, er, not being evil. Maybe they could even get their Books project cleaned up.
Of course, there are issues with this. They would have to cut staff – though that might be a good thing, freeing up all those bright and ambitious engineers to go do their own things. It would remove the profit motive from their work, so there’s the danger of becoming complacent if they aren’t sufficiently motivated by their mission. And there’s the whole nonprofit transparency thing, though that pales in comparison to Sarbanes-Oxley.
So – will the next stage of Google’s evolution be as a nonprofit? I doubt it, but it’s a fun speculation.