It sure seems like Google is struggling to invent the future
Earlier this week, Google made some serious cuts to its startup incubator Area 120, cutting half of its projects, according to TechCrunch. The purpose of Area 120 was to give Google employees somewhere to experiment or chase their passion projects, with the hope that they could stumble upon the next Big Idea like Adsense, Gmail, or Google News.
But as the economy has turned, it seems Google may be losing its stomach for big bets and experimentation, instead trying to focus its efforts on what makes money today (or services that it really just has to run despite the fact that they lose money, like Google Cloud). Instead of challenging employees to spend 20 percent of their time building wacky apps, CEO Sundar Pichai says the company needs to be 20 percent more efficient and productive. In a memo earlier this summer, he urged employees to be “more entrepreneurial,” but it read more like a demand to work harder and find ways to cut costs rather than to bark up trees that may or may not bear future fruit.
That perception has permeated outside the company as well. According to a recent report from The Information, some recruiters looking to hire employees for startups are starting to look away from Google because they have the impression that the tech giant’s employees mostly maintain legacy products instead of building new ones.
One of the places this idea is most evident is the company’s hardware. Earlier this week, we reported Google canceled a Pixelbook project that was “deep into development” to cut costs, effectively leaving it up to other companies to push the Chromebook category forward.
As my colleague Monica Chin pointed out, the original Pixelbook felt more like a halo device meant to inspire other manufacturers and show what was possible with Chromebooks rather than something Google actually expected people to buy. While we don’t know whether the canceled Chromebook would’ve had that same ethos, it feels safe to say that launching any sort of laptop wouldn’t be a guaranteed home run for Google — according to market analysis firm IDC, the company isn’t even one of the top five Chromebook manufacturers in terms of market share or units shipped. Google would have to convince people to choose its laptop over ones from trusted brands like Acer, HP, or Lenovo, something it’s seemingly failed to do at any sort of scale with the 2019 Pixelbook Go (perhaps owing to its rather high $649 starting price).
Other parts of Google’s Pixel lineup also feel less bold than they used to. Remember the Pixel 4, which came with a radar sensor, or the Pixel 2, which introduced squeezable sides to Google’s phones? Those were fun, cool features that gave you a good reason to consider a Pixel. Everything we’ve seen about the Pixel 7 so far makes it look like it’ll be a relatively minor upgrade, complete with a very similar design to its predecessor. We’ll find out if that’s actually the case on October 6th, but I won’t be shocked if there’s nothing shocking about Google’s next phones.
It’d be unfair to say that Google isn’t doing anything new when it comes to Pixels, though. It is, after all, adding both a smartwatch and a tablet to its lineup. However, neither seem to be pushing any boundaries, especially the latter, which has a design that feels years out of date now and will likely feel even more so next year after we get a fresh new crop of iPads. Instead of being halo devices that inspire other manufacturers, it just feels like Google’s playing catch-up to Samsung (and at this point, it’s unclear if these devices will even be competitive).
This phenomenon isn’t entirely new for Google, and it’s not just limited to hardware. Google is infamous for giving up on projects shortly after they launch, and sometimes even before — just in the past year or so, it’s turned around on plans to integrate banking into Google Pay (which has largely been replaced now by a reincarnated Google Wallet), mostly done away with its YouTube Originals program, and moved Stadia away from being a game streaming service to more of a white-label tech that companies can use for demos and cell plan add-ons. But there’s a difference between giving up on select projects and shifting your culture to be more conservative towards experimentation. Declaring for certain which of those Google’s doing would require more data, but moves like transferring assets from a failed experiment to a startup and then investing in the company feel less ambitious than just rebooting the project yourself.
None of this is to say that Google is completely standing still — obviously, its core apps and services are continuing to get new features, redesigns, and tweaks. And it’s not like Google’s stopped throwing everything it can at the messaging platform wall. The company spends almost $10 billion a quarter on research and development — that money is obviously going somewhere. But I’d be hard-pressed to think of any of the company’s recent work that really made me sit up and go, “Wow!” Sure, I enjoy watching the occasional TikTok but on Youtube, and I appreciate that Google’s making Android more customizable and web tracking a little less creepy, but those changes are incremental, not revolutionary.
Perhaps part of the reason it’s been hard to get excited about Google’s efforts is where it’s focusing on innovating. It’s introduced a flurry of changes to Workspace recently, adding “chips” that let you blend your documents, spreadsheets, reminders, and even meetings and emails together. It’s also been paying some attention to Meet, its Zoom competitor. But while these changes have probably made people’s work lives a little easier, adding new features in an office suite doesn’t exactly seem like swinging for the fences to build the future to me.
Even if Google were to completely stop all experimentation, it would likely survive — its services are engrained in the fabric of how almost all of us use the Internet at this point. But if it doesn’t take big bets, it’ll be hard for it to come up with the next Gmail, Google Assistant, or ChromeOS and almost impossible to help invent new categories of tech like self-driving cars or ambient computing. If companies want to attract the sort of people who are going to build the future, they have to be the type of place where people can actually go out on limbs and not be worried about getting in trouble for barking up the wrong tree. It’d be a shame if Google became a company where that wasn’t the case.