Google: Innovation Desperation or Innovation Innovation

December 5, 2018

Google has an innovation problem. The company has tried 20 percent free time. Engineers were supposed to work on personal projects. Google tried creating investment units. Google has acquired companies, often in time frames that seemed compressed. Anyone remember buying Motorola Mobility in 2011? Google created a super secret innovation center because the ageing Google Labs was not up to the task of creating Loon balloons and solving death. There have been competitions to identity bright young sprouts who can bring new ideas to the Google. If I dig through my files, there are probably innovation initiatives I have forgotten. Google is either a forward looking outfit, or it is struggling to do more than keep the 20 year old system looking young.

Image result for archimedes eureka

Has Google tried thinking in the hot tub like Archimedes? Google has bean bags, volleyball courts, and Foosball. But real innovations like those AltaVista mechanisms or GoTo’s pay to play for search visibility? There is Web Accelerator, of course.

I read “An Exclusive look inside Google’s in-house incubator Area 120.” The write up reports that a wizard Googler allegedly said and may actually believe:

“We built a place and a process to be able to have those folks come to us and then select what we thought were the most promising teams, the most promising ideas, the most promising markets,” explains managing director Alex Gawley, who has spent a decade at Google and left his role as product manager for Google Apps (since renamed G Suite) to spearhead this new effort. Employees “can actually leave their jobs and come to us to spend 100% of their time pursuing something that they are particularly passionate about,” he says.

Okay, Area 120. That even more mysterious than the famous Area 51. I am thinking of the theme from “Outer Limits.”

The Googlers “pitch” ideas in the hope of getting funding. A Japanese management expert explained a somewhat similar approach to keeping smart employees innovating. See Kuniyasu Sakai’s explanations of the method in “To Expand We Divide.” You probably have this and his other management writings on your desk, right? Someone at Google seems to have brushed against these concepts. In Fast Company / Google speak, these new companies are “hatchlings.”

Several observations:

  1. Innovation is a problem as companies become larger. Google illustrates this problem.
  2. Google’s approach to innovation is bifurcated. Most of its “innovations” originated elsewhere; for example, IBM Clever, AltaVista technology, GoTo-Overture “pay to play” advertising. The company’s goal is to innovate using original ideas, not refinements of other innovators’ breakthroughs.
  3. Google faces an innovation free environment. A recent example may be found in the wild and crazy Amazon announcements at its Re:Invent conference. Somewhere in the jet blast of announcements, there were a couple of substantive innovations. Google does phones with problems and wraps search in layers of cotton wool. Amazon, its seems, is sucking search innovation from Google.

For these reasons Google is gasping. Even rah rah write ups about Google like the recent encomium to Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat (both AltaVista veterans) is a technical “You Can’t Go Home Again” description of the good old days.

On one hand, Google’s efforts to become innovative are admirable. Persistence, patience, investment—yada yada. On the other hand, Google remains trapped as a servant to its Yahoo (GoTo and Overture) business model for online advertising.

The PR will continue to flow, but innovations? Maybe.

Stephen E Arnold, December 5, 2018

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