Google has a split personality (aka Google is like the dual-headed Janus)
I have nothing but respect for Google. They are an awe-inspiring company. Like others, I watch them closely, hoping to learn from them. One thing I’ve noticed is that, whether deliberately or not, they’ve come to embody a split personality. Rare in the corporate world, they are textbook definitions of BOTH sides of Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovations. They’re at once the risk-taking upstarts AND the wedded-to-current-solutions incumbent. That is nearly unparalleled, and makes for a fascinating case.
World’s largest startup?
In many respects, risk-taking and exploration is in Google’s DNA. This is especially true when they’re not the leader in a category, or when it doesn’t have to do with their core business. Simplistically, this means everything but search and advertising. In these areas, they’re willing to throw stuff out there and see what sticks. They famously allow engineers 20% time to work on pet projects (and even if this number is fudge, the sentiment itself is as revealing as anything). Successful projects “graduate” to higher levels of importance… gradually.
They’ve shown time and again that they’re not afraid to experiment and try for something bold or revolutionary, even if that means not infrequent failure. (See: Knol, Nexus One, Wave, etc.) Their habits of launching with Beta versions, and allowing users to play with Labs features – at one point heretical/ anathema for a company of Google’s stature – is now standard practice in the tech world. The release fantastic new features seemingly every week. Heck, they’re even up for experimenting with goats as gardeners for their beloved corporate campus!
Contrast this free-for-all attitude with search, their almighty cash cow. Here Google is Super Conservative. Everything is incremental and A/B tested, down to the testing of 41 potential new shades of blue, which caused their lead visual designer to quit in dismay. They need to be poked and prodded – by Microsoft of all people! – to show anything new to users. They’re wedded to the status quo solutions, which make them ripe for the kind of disruption that social networking, mobile, and the real-time web now threaten to produce.
Their “revolutionary” launch of Google Instant is case in point. Revolutionary? When somebody asked me what these changes with Google she’d heard about were, I described how now Google offered suggestions as you typed. Her response? Haven’t they been doing that for years?
When searching for storm-clouds, don’t just look at failures. Failure may not be where the trouble lies.
People point at things like Wave, the Nexus One, or Buzz and say Google is in trouble. I see these failures as a sign of health. Google is a smart organization filled with smart people. With this level of experimentation and effort, they’ll figure it out. The Nexus One and the rough, early versions of Android were necessary steps on the way to Android’s current ascendency. Nobody’s laughing at Google’s mobile strategy now. And though others do, I don’t doubt that in a little while, we’ll be saying how Wave and Buzz were stepping stones on the way to a solid social strategy, part of their winding roadmap for real-time.
No, for me it’s not the Knol-like “failures” that are the problem. It’s the fear of failure and experimentation with search and advertising that Google should really be worried about.