Google’s moves announced at this weeks #madebygoogle event have been analyzed a great deal. The announcements’ essence: Sundar Pichai declared the 4th computing age is the AI first era (after PCs, the web and mobile). Plus, Google launched a bunch of hardware products — among it the Pixel Phone and Google Home — which are home to their Google Assistant. Also, Google (basically) builds the devices itself. This, effectively, means they created a new business model which renders them an integrated hard- and software company similar to Apple. For an insightful look at the business ramifications of the move, I encourage you to read Ben Thompson piece and/or listen to this podcast.
I want to add one aspect to the discussion: Focusing the company on machine learning and betting big on intelligent assistants also means Google is undergoing a massive cultural shift.
I wrote at length about the implications of virtual assistants in The Last Touchpoint: The Future Of The Web As Imagined by Google. I stated:
“…the assistant — and therefore the user — is indifferent to where a piece of information comes from. The assistant aggregates, processes and presents it anyway. It is, in an ideal state (as envisioned by Google & Co., not by me),the single touchpoint with the user.”
Google as we know it has been built on optionality. When you searched something, Google The Search Engine presented you with a list of results you could choose from. Though you usually didn’t visit the tenth (or 2nd) results page, you did have the option. Google The Intelligent Assistant is a different animal. It must be. The whole value of voice-based assistants is that they immediately provide the answers to questions or solve problems. Gone is the optionality (or it’s at least drastically reduced; while offering three different options might be viable, giving you thirty isn’t).
The Mission Shift
This presents a rather drastic cultural shift. Google’s mission from early on has read:
Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
This was certainly true for Google The Search Engine. Could you come up with a fancy, rhetorical argument to let the current moves appear as in line with it? Sure. A more realistic statement for Google The Intelligent Assistant, however, would read:
Google’s mission is to aggregate and understand the world’s information in order to present our users those which have the highest probability to suit her or his needs
While Google has always been a business, it also was a company that thought differently (pun absolutely intended). For it was built based on the existence of an open web, its whole culture was one that favored openness.
Jonathan Rosenberg, then the Senior VP Product Management, wrote a piece in 2009, The meaning of open, which is a great testament of that attitude. He writes:
At Google we believe that open systems win. They lead to more innovation, value, and freedom of choice for consumers, and a vibrant, profitable, and competitive ecosystem for businesses.
In an open system, a competitive advantage doesn’t derive from locking in customers, but rather from understanding the fast-moving system better than anyone else and using that knowledge to generate better, more innovative products.
You can certainly find examples in the past were Google opted against openness but you’ll find plenty that substantiate the rhetoric. And there was good business sense in doing so: Google’s advertising core business was based upon the existence of an open, fragmented web. The web, however, is changing and so is Google. Neither do I want to turn this into an ethical discussion about the open web nor judge Google’s new strategy. Instead, I want to highlight that Google The Search Engine was predicated on a very different mindset than Google The Intelligent Assistant.
Swapping Mankind for Users
The very idea of Google The Search Engine is at least somewhat idealistic and aimed to be beneficial to society. Organizing the world’s information and making it accessible to everybody is a huge deal. As information is power, there is a certain radical appeal to it. It was a service designed for mankind.
Google The Intelligent Assistant, on the other hand, is made for individual users. As Pichai noted: The very idea behind it is to give every user her own Google. It is a service designed for convenience through and through. Though I tend to avoid such oversimplified generalizations, one could even argue that intelligent assistants (which reduce optionality¹) are detrimental to society: By locking-in users they constitute an enormous aggregation of influence and catalyze negative effects such as the filter bubble. I don’t fully subscribe to this line of reasoning because reality is more nuanced but admittedly the potential exists.
So, the essential shift is this: Google transitioned from being an incredible idea with the potential to improve the world which — not accidentally but kind of as a positive byproduct — lent itself to become one of the world’s most successful business models to being an incredible business that is now in search of new ways to better cater to its customer base. Note that this makes total business sense. Yet, when you buy into my framing here, it represents not a minor cultural shift.
It’s not a secret: Culture has a huge influence on companies and their success. Thus, I’m really curious what the strategy and business model transition is going to mean for Google’s culture. Mind you: Google has always prided itself as a very mission-driven company. As this mission is shifting, it’s almost certainly going to have effects internally. They might or might not become noticeable to the outside world but it will certainly be interesting to watch the transition closely. After all, Google is on a journey and they are leaving some of their roots behind.
¹ Note this interesting contradiction: Reducing optionality might well be in the interest of the individual user. In case the assistant works well and presents one or a select few, very relevant option(s), it’s freeing the user from the stress of (too much) choice. On the other hand, the same capability might present a downside for society from a macro-perspective.