Warning of half-billion-dollar settlement tops off tough week for Google

Windows may be 'torturing users,' but a lot of things are torturing Google

Anyone who prefers their IT marketing content flavored with self-serving snark rather than the more usual tone of passive/aggressive faux-virtuousness must have enjoyed the May 11 keynote in which Google co-founder Sergey Brin described the often kludged interface of Windows as "torturing users."

Looking at the news for the rest of the week, you have to wonder if it's Google being tortured.

The attack with the clearest effect is the half-billion dollars Google has already set aside to pay an impending settlement over charges from the U.S. Department of Justice that it broke U.S. laws by running ads from online pharmacies using the Internet to avoid U.S. drug-control laws.

Facebook's contribution had less impact on the bottom line, but showed far more enmity than one might expect from a professional social-network host.

Facebook hired Microsoft's second-string spokes-company PR firm Burston-Marsteller to smear Google by planting negative stories in the mainstream press and various blogs, focusing on the way Google's business model pretty much assumes it will routinely violate the privacy of its customers.

That little effort makes Facebook – whose integrity and respect for privacy prompted even WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to name it "the most appalling spying machine ever invented" – the leading candidate for IT-industry hypocrite of the year.

The only saving grace for Facebook is the entertaining level of what ITWorld colleague Chris Nerney called Facebook's level of "skulduggery and ineptitude."

It's easy to go negative and try to smear a competitor; it's harder to do it so badly that your villain manque was clearly Black Adder, rather than Richard III.

That didn't make life any easier for Google, though. ComScore reported Google – still the search engine with the greatest breadth and shortest time-to-usefulness of any major search site online – lost fractions of a percentage point of market share to Yahoo and Bing.

Those two, the former of which takes too long to find a useful link and the latter that seems to actively avoid it, make up a combined 30 percent of the search-engine market, while Google dropped from 64.7 percent to 65.4 percent.

Google suffered another PR attack from a French security company that claimed to have been able to use the bug Vupen to hack Google's Chrome browser, which Google has touted as far more secure than Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Mozilla's FireFox.

Google engineers countered that the exploit actually played on a weakness in Adobe's Flash (which, in fairness, is made of up security flaws loosely connected by functional code requiring frequent updates and replacement of itself in the auto-startup folder). OTOH, Google had bundled that version of Flash with Chrome for more than a year, so it should really get credit for the hack, if only for complicity in it.

The flap hit the news the same day Google announced its new Chrome operating system and the not-a-laptop laptops it will run on.

Reaction to that, at least, was almost universally positive, except for those cranks among the chattering classes who felt compelled to point out that Chromebooks are simply updates of several failed or obsolete alternatives to the laptop (netbooks, network computers, dumb terminals).

With its focus on Web access, portability and keeping as little of its own data, applications or other compute resources on the local device, the Chromebook is designed more as an alternative to smartphones and tablets in the BYOT virtual-desktop market, than as a replacement for regular laptops.

Topping that off, Microsoft managed to nab Skype (by vastly overpaying for it), despite reported efforts by both Facebook and Google to buy it instead.

Overall a tough week for Google, but one that, for the rest of us, is a little reassuring, if only because it shows even the giant, omnipotent companies with unfettered control of much of our computing universe and private information can also make mistakes, be taken advantage of and sometimes even be successfully attacked.

On the other hand, that may not be so reassuring after all.

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