Has Google peaked? If not, is it peaking? I got to thinking about this after reading James Whittaker’s screed lamenting the change of culture at his former company, which he published — I think tackily — on the website of his new employer, Microsoft.
Whittaker contends that Google has surrendered its commitment to innovation in favor of a corporate-centric, as opposed to user- and market-centric, pursuit of Facebook. Projects that don’t somehow aim to bolster Google+ are regarded as second-class. That usually spells doom in the corporate world, a kind of death by a thousand cuts.
A couple of recent developments at Google back Whittaker up. First, Vic Gundotra, the Lead of Google+, described the still-fledgling social network as “the fastest-growing service we’ve ever seen at Google” — which just strikes me as odd, and a tad hard to believe considering how quickly Google took over the online advertising space. Then he tellingly responded to the notion of it being a ghost town by suggesting that people learn how to “use it correctly.” I’ll let that one speak for itself.
Second is the hiring of Kevin Rose and the product team of his infant and unproven social app developer Milk for a reported $15 to $30 million. Supposedly, Rose will be a leader in efforts to enhance the social aspects of Google+. That feels like the Red Sox putting someone straight from the draft behind home plate. For that kind of money, they could have poached someone who’s actually developed social strategies at, say, Facebook.
Before this, Google’s focused on creating things that people want. A solid and free office suite; a flexible free email system; the world’s most popular search engine. Now, it’s changing course, pouring resources financial and intellectual into a social network no one’s really excited about. Google+ is the Mitt Romney of social media, hanging in there, adding users in dribs and drabs, but unable to pull itself over the top. And unlike Romney, it won’t have a convention to nail down its future one way or another.
Which brings me back to my original question. Has Google peaked? For what it’s worth, I think so. It has scads of money but so does Microsoft, and you can’t argue that Redmond’s the driving force behind technology anymore. Aside from advertising, Google still hasn’t come up with a deep revenue model. Although it leads the pack in the ad space, it’s vulnerable to Facebook and its 800 million sets of eyeballs. Android’s a great offering, and there’s money to be made with it. But it’s in a brutally competitive landscape and needs support from the very kind of innovation Google seems to be de-emphasizing. Plus, it’s still lagging Apple in innovation as well as sales. Apple, after all, is the company that brought you Siri and the new iPad’s retina display. Android doesn’t yet offer anything in that league.
Companies have recovered from muddy strategies before, of course. Apple itself comes to mind, as does Coke after New Coke. But Apple returned from the dead because it got back to creating game changers. Google creates refined versions of products that already exist — it wasn’t the first search engine, after all. Pushing aside a product that’s become ubiquitous is a whole different matter.
None of this is to say Google’s not a force to be reckoned with. It certainly is. It just doesn’t seem intent on leading any more.