Google’s top 10 news items from 2011

In our many trips to the Google campus during 2011, we heard and saw a lot of what the company got up to in 2011.As one of the foremost Google+ skeptics, I personally got called in not once but twice to have the company’s social vision patiently explained to me.And I also got to talk with the company’s patent law and Android experts on how Google plans to survive the current mobile OS war, where it’s currently under fire from Apple and Microsoft and waiting for reinforcements in the form of a Motorola Mobility acquisition that may or may not happen.These stories and many others weave together in the rich and detailed tapestry that is Google’s year in review.Google and its partners are getting sued to heck and back over Android. “Why would anyone hate on a poor, defenseless, open-source operating system?” you might ask yourself.Considering Android is soaring in market share far beyond what anyone could have anticipated, it’s no wonder that players such as Apple (which sued HTC) and Microsoft (which is suing Motorola) are threatened. So those companies and others have struck out against Android and its manufacturers in the ever-so-entertaining theater of patent law.Most troubling, perhaps, is Oracle’s assertion that the Android operating system’s code base itself is infringing on its copyrights and patents. Oracle, through a series of corporate acquisitions, got its mitts on Java, the open-source programming language upon which Android is based, two years ago. It filed suit against Google last year, and after three mediation hearings, a trial is still scheduled to take place.Google+ was launched in the summer of 2011, and we — like most — first assumed it was a Facebook competitor and fawned excessively over the infant social product.However, as time wore on, we (ok, I, the only VentureBeat staffer who refused to get a Google+ account in the first place) began to gain a deeper understanding of Plus. It is not a social network, actually. According to the company’s words and actions, it’s a unifying set of tools that’s supposed to make using all Google’s web products a more cohesive experience.So while Google+ continues to roll out new features, what we find most exciting is its integration into all of Google’s other web-based products, from Reader to Gmail to Blogger and beyond. Eventually, you’ll see that integration everywhere, on every part of the web that Google controls.In May, Google announced it would be launching Google Music, a.k.a., the worst-kept secret on the Internet. After months of leaks, rumors and speculation (based on gossip-happy Hollywood types with whom Google had to work to get Music off the ground), we finally got to see it for the first time at Google I/O, the company’s developer conference.While not everyone was thrilled with the early beta of the product, we’re optimistic that Google Music can win in the long term, especially since it recently launched a music store that supports peer-to-peer sharing features.Of all the accusations leveled at the Android operating system, none has been flung out so often nor so vociferously as that of fragmentation. Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest Android variant, was created with that accusation in mind.The previous 2.X and 3.X forks were intended to run either on tablets or on smartphones. But the new OS runs on all web-connected devices, from smartphones to tablets and far beyond. It was intended to make development for Android much easier and to make a diverse marketplace of devices more cohesive.For consumers, it features an all-new, gorgeous design aesthetic, complete with a homebrewed new typeface, Roboto. Who knows, Android might even be as good-looking as the new Windows Phones one of these days.Remember those complicated patent lawsuits we were telling you about earlier? When those bad boys started, Google held fewer than 1,000 patents. Total. For all its technologies and products.With Android getting pummeled with patent lawsuits, Google found an expeditious way to beef up its patent portfolio: In August, it announced its intention to acquire Motorola Mobility, itself the holder of 17,500 mobile tech patents with an additional 7,500 patents pending.While U.S. and EU regulators are still putting the deal through a gamut of investigations to determine whether it crosses certain antitrust lines, Google says Moto will continue to operate as a separate entity — the only way such an acquisition could allow the competitive Android ecosystem to survive. As unlikely as it sounds, a competition-friendly Moto acquisition actually makes sense to us.Chrome, Google’s fast and simple web browser, was launched in late 2008, and its growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. Just this month, we learned that Chrome had eclipsed Firefox as the world’s second-most popular browser.While being second-best might not seem brag-worthy to you type-A nutjobs out there, keep in mind who is (still) winning the browser wars: Internet Explorer. But IE’s market share is waning, falling from 26.6 percent at the end of 2009 to just 40 percent two years later. Currently, Chrome claims a 25.7 percent share of the global browser market. If Chrome’s growth keeps up, it may be sitting on top soon enough.There are a lot of ways to measure popularity, and Android is killing it in almost every metric. Not only are Android smartphones the most desired gadgets in their class; they’re also dominating in terms of actual market share. One area where Android lags is in popularity with developers — and consequently, number of currently available Android applications, especially for tablets.Another big announcement from Google I/O was the Chromebook, Google’s hardware project for Chrome OS. The company touts Chrome OS as an operating system, but (and this frustrates the heck out of purists of any stripe) the so-called “OS” is simply Chrome, the browser, running on top of a Linux distribution that the user can’t access without rooting the machine.It seems that Google is trying to prove the irrelevance of the operating system as it exists — a layer between the user and the hardware and the Internet. And as it pushes the relevance of “the cloud” and beefs up its own range of web products, Google is particularly peddling Chrome, Chrome “OS” and Chromebooks to the enterprise and to educators.Finally, Google nuked a few products, most notably Gears, its behind-the-scenes syncing and caching system; Buzz, the social product that preceded Google+; and Wave, the semi-social collaborative suite that preceded Buzz.Wave was possibly one of the most ambitious and most disappointing projects in the company’s history. Wave lives on as an Apache project, which it’s been since late last year; however, Google finally axed it officially last month.Buzz was looking semi-promising until it ran into a deal-breaking privacy snafu that added up to a multi-million dollar legal payout to angry users.Finally, Google did a bit of corporate shopping, shall we say, this year. Notable acquisitions include:fflick, bought for $10 million: This Twitter movie recommendation engine team contributed to the new YouTube redesign and integrations with Google+.Dealmap: We called this startup “the missing link between Google Offers and Google Maps.”PostRank: The acquisition of this social ranking service came just days after Google announced its +1 buttons and before it launched Google+.Next New Networks, bought for less than $100 million: The NNN team is providing audience development, programming experience and partner guidance for YouTube.Zagat, bought for $151 million: The famous restaurant review company fit perfectly into Google’s overarching plan for Places, Offers and other local business plays.Admeld, bought for $400 million: This ad startup will help Google deliver its ad customers more data about how their ads are performing.Green Parrot Pictures: This Irish startup’s technology helps to improve YouTube video processing.Apture: This acquisition was a talent and technology grab to help make Chrome even faster.

Google responds to FTC inquiry: Antitrust? What antitrust?

Yesterday we wrote that the Federal Trade Commission was readying a large-scale Google antitrust probe, and today Google confirmed that it has received notification of an investigation from the regulatory agency. Google Fellow and key search engineer Amit Singhal responded to the situation in a blog post today, entitled “Support choice, ensuring economic opportunity.”

Google's $500M DOJ fine all about illegal online drug ads

The mysterious $500 million Google set aside in the last quarter for an ongoing Department of Justice probe was finally made clear last night. Google is apparently close to settling a criminal investigation over ads from illegal online pharmacies that have earned the company hundreds of millions, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Google under EU investigation over online ads

In the latest blow to Google’s ever-expanding online ambitions, the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, has opened an antitrust investigation into Google’s practices in online advertising. According to allegations made by Microsoft’s German subsidiary Ciao.de, British price comparison site Foundem, and French legal search specialist Ejustice, Google has discriminated against competitors by placing their links lower in search results than its own services, thus abusing its dominant position in online search.

The FTC is out to get Google, some interviewees say

Google’s $750 million acquisition of AdMob, the fast-growing mobile-advertising startup, appears to be running aground in Washington, D.C. Antitrust regulators at the Federal Trade Commission have reportedly given the deal more time for a review. Some mobile developers, though, are raising questions about the FTC’s review process and asking whether Google’s getting a fair shake.

Microsoft adds to Google antitrust complaints in Europe

European antitrust regulators are investigating complaints in France, Germany and Italy by competitors who claim Google is unfairly using its huge market advantage — sometimes an even greater percentage of local searchers than in America — to push them out of business. We initially reported this last night, but there is more detail now.

Justice Dept. investigates possible hiring pact between Google, Apple, Yahoo, others

The Justice Department is reportedly investigating major tech companies for possibly violating antitrust laws with their hiring practices. The department sent “civil investigative demands” (written requests for documents and information) to at least a dozen tech companies, including Google, Apple, Yahoo, and biotech company Genentech. The question is, have some of these companies agreed not to recruit each other’s employees?