Home · Posts
The Google We Lost
March 27, 2012

Larry Page has made it clear that focus will be the core virtue of his reign as Google CEO. I'm bothered, though, by what he decided to focus on: social, design, and product. [1] Google has spent a decade hiring almost purely for engineering ability. The upside of this fitness function is that they can solve some of the world's hardest engineering problems. But as a side effect, they've never been good at the more human problems that Page wants to focus on. [2]

I'm sure there are important reasons he decided to focus on what the company's bad at, instead of what it's good at. (It's not simply to become more well-rounded. That's the opposite of focus, and this change feels like a big strategic decision.) Fear of Facebook is a plausible first-order one. [3] So is the influence of Apple's success, and Steve Jobs's advice more directly.

Still, I wonder about the other path. Here's a company that was said to be building "Turing's Cathedral". They have internal infrastructure years ahead of anyone else. They've solved data and algorithm problems uniquely well. That's their brand in the minds of developers. [4] Google has their data centers, internal tools, translation and other NLP, geo data, machine learning, and more. All this is what Page could have chosen to emphasize and build on. Yegge's platform rant was right, but could be taken even further, to become the core of who Google is. Instead, they're trying to be more like Apple.

Google trying to become more like Apple smacks of a nerd who decides to try to be popular. Even if you succeed, you lose something valuable about yourself. Making a decision based on principles like "be true to yourself" is heuristic and long-term; it would be hard to justify to shareholders. But it sure would feel better. "Beat Facebook" is not an inspiring vision, and Google needs to keep inspiring developers if it wants to keep hiring the best ones. And the world loses something — the company that could have been.

Thanks to Nick Doty.

[1] See https://plus.google.com/106189723444098348646/posts/dRtqKJCbpZ7, https://plus.google.com/106189723444098348646/posts/dRtqKJCbpZ7, and http://pandodaily.com/2012/01/24/larry-page-to-googlers-if-you-dont-get-spyw-work-somewhere-else/.

[2] There are individuals inside Google who have those skills, but the company's culture means they were never expressed in the emergent behavior. See Doug Bowman's resignation. Their search interface was a stroke of luck; excluding that, they've released approximately one well-designed product.

[3] Facebook could start an ad network, threatening Google's revenue model, and it could continue to siphon people's web-browsing time into what Paul Graham rightly called the "universal web site", threatening Google's premise.

[4] So losing to Facebook at social isn't embarrassing — not compared to getting trounced by Amazon on the PaaS front. AWS is hugely popular and improves quickly, while AppEngine has moved slowly from the beginning and continues to repel developers with its idiosyncrasies. Even in the pre-focus era, Google favored products over platforms, possibly (as Yegge speculates) overgeneralizing from the seed of the company's existence: a tiny interface — approximately the size of one text input — supported by a hidden mountain of machinery.