The Death of Project Ara Signals a Return to Adult Supervision at Google under Ruth Porat

Julia Love at Reuters reported Thursday night that Google has suspended Project Ara, which was its modular phone initiative, as part of a broader tightening of the belt across Google’s hardware business.

On the face of it, the failure of Ara isn’t surprising at all — along with many others, I’ve expressed skepticism throughout its life that it would ever come to anything. All that’s really surprising is the timing of its end of life, coming as it does just a few months after a big push around Google’s I/O developer conference.

To my mind, though, this is the latest in a series of moves that suggests some measure of “adult supervision” is returning to Alphabet and Google through CFO Ruth Porat. I’ve written a bit about this previously, but it’s come into a new focus for me over the last week or two.

By way of context, it’s worth going back and remembering where that “adult supervision” phrase came from. As Steven Levy and others have recounted, at pre-IPO Google, there was a sense among investors that Larry and Sergey weren’t the best fit for running a public company — they were too zany and undisciplined. As far as I can tell, Kevin Gray was the first to quote the adult supervision line in a February 2012 piece for Details called The Little Engine that Could:

LAST AUGUST, IN A SIGN THAT GOOGLE WAS APPROACHING MATURITY, Page and Brin relinquished management to famed Silicon Valley suit Eric Schmidt. “We were looking to not screw this up,” says Brin as we dig into smoked salmon and pepper-crusted top sirloin on a sun-filled porch outside the company cafeteria. The noodling strains of Jerry Garcia play in the background. “Basically, we needed adult supervision.” Brin adds that the board of directors, two of whom belong to their VC team, “feels more comfortable with us now. What do they think two hooligans are going to do with their millions?”

In a 2014 piece about the launch of Eric Schmidt’s book about running Google, he was quoted on what this adult supervision looked like:

“My instincts were always to manage to what we have; theirs was always to what is possible,” Schmidt said of the founders. “The latter is a better way to lead.”

Of course, Schmidt had given up this leadership in 2011, and famously re-used the adult supervision line in announcing the change:

What’s interesting about Ruth Porat’s arrival is that she seems to have brought some of this adult supervision back, but with a different flavor. The focus of her efforts — as befits someone who came from the investment banking world — is financial discipline. In some ways, it hearkens back directly to that quote from Sergey Brin above — she’s there to ensure that the “hooligans” don’t screw up with other people’s millions.

And there’s the rub: Larry Page and Sergey Brin have always been defined by their vast ambition and their desires to defy the odds and shoot for the moon (to the extent that Alphabet has a whole division devoted to “moonshots”). Schmidt’s natural tendency was to temper that magical thinking and bring it back down to earth. Though with rose-tinted hindsight in 2014 he praised their approach over his own, I suspect his approach won out a lot.

Under Ruth Porat, however, it seems the adult supervision has been more rigorous, especially when it comes to financial excess. Schmidt’s approach seems to have been about letting Page and Brin get away with as much as possible without really screwing up the company, while Porat’s approach seems to leave far less latitude. In that earlier piece I cited the sale of Boston Dynamics and the belt-tightening at Nest as evidence of a financial clampdown, but in the past two weeks we have the cuts at Google Fiber and now the death of Project Ara as further data points.

Grand ambition is admirable, as is attempting to defy the odds and prove the naysayers wrong. But such a mindset still has to be grounded in reality, and those who think this way still need to know when to give up. In the past, Project Ara might have run for much longer before being killed off, but it seems the new era of adult supervision at Alphabet will give such projects a much shorter leash. On balance, that’s probably a good thing.