Let’s bailout Google


I’ll admit right off: The title to this post is absurd. Google doesn’t need bailing out. And Larry and Sergie would never pretend to be embarrassed about flying around in a private Boeing 767 (that they own, not Google).

However, this morning, Google came to mind while reading about President-elect Obama’s radio speech (does anyone actually listen to these on radios?). Here’s a snip from the the New York Times coverage of what he said:

President-elect Barack Obama committed Saturday to the largest public works building program since the creation of the interstate highway system a half century ago as he seeks to put together a plan to resuscitate the reeling economy…He promised to make government buildings more energy efficient, modernize school classrooms and libraries with computers, expand access to broadband Internet service and upgrade information technology in hospitals and doctors’ offices.

We are about to learn the actual answer to the question: How many lobbysts and congressmen and procurement officers and government contractors and senate hearings does it take to change a lightbulb? (Or, more accurately, every lightbulb in every government building?)

I like the analogy of the Interstate highway system (although I’m not sure why the Times doesn’t capitalize “I” or why I do) for lots of good reasons, but also for lots of cautionary reasons, as well. I think the Interstate highway system is one of the most incredible engineering feats in history, right up there with the Wall of China and the aqueducts of Rome. And without it, Nashville would be 12, rather than 8, hours away from the nearest coastline. However, you can also blame Interstates for such unintended consequences as: lots of waste, fraud and criminal activity by government contractors, tens of thousands of tragic deaths; bridges to no where; global warming; the ability to convince banks, investors, developers, regulators and homeowners to buy into pyramid schemes related to housing developments 45 miles from the closest city.

But let’s just focus on the good part of the analogy.

A huge engineering challenge — indeed, a BHAG of an engineering challenge — is what President-elect Obama is suggesting when he talks about, “making government buildings more energy efficient, modernize school classrooms and libraries with computers, expand access to broadband Internet service and upgrade information technology in hospitals and doctors’ offices.”

That sounds great, but for anyone who has worked in Washington (as I have, for three years on Capitol Hill), you cringe when you think about the land grab for cash and “authorization” and “oversight” and power that is already being carved up, as we speak. Lobbyists for the same corporations that supply the Pentagon are “strategizing” about how to get in on the action.

But let’s get back to Google.

Those of us who love Google — while also loving to hate Google — will admit one thing: they didn’t exist 11 years ago. And today, they are one of the most important forces in our lives. They know how to innovate. They know how to hire the heck out of engineers and let them come up with solutions to problems that may, or may not, exist. They know how to find 10,000 programmers when the rest of us have a hard time finding two.

They know how to solve BHAGs exactly like the ones Obama is talking about.

So (and I apologize for the roughness of my plan as I’m just coming up with it off the top of my head) I suggest the government give Google, say, $10 billion and tell them to spend it on employing 10,000 engineers and other googlers on these things:

1. Modernizing school classrooms and libraries with computers
2. Expanding access to broadband Internet service
3. Upgrading information technology in hospitals and doctors’ offices

And for receiving this $10 billion, what do the tax-payers (including competing suppliers of the same type of services) get in return? Everything.

The deal is this: Everything Google would do for this government contract would have to be open-source and fully (FULLY) accessible to independent developers and competitors so that a massive ecosystem of innovators and startups could freely utilize (in the same way we can all drive our cars on the Interstate vs. the way we can’t drive our cars on the railroads). And maybe the tax-payers get some equity, as well.

Google has proven to be unmatched in its ability to innovate and rush to market — and then keep improving those that actually make sense — products and services that are massive in scale and, for the most part, stable. (Again, I could head down the “why I hate Google path” but I’ll skip it this time.)

Google has the ability to set standards (rather than let the ‘open-source’ community debate them for the next ten years) and get us down the road. If I were running the government, I’d want to outsource innovation to a giant contractor that can actually innovate.

But hey, that’s just me.