Google's uncertain future
It's a story synonymous with the birth of the mainstream internet. In the mid-1990s, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two graduate students at Stanford, started work on a project to rank web pages and let people search for things. That little project of course became Google, a service now so ubiquitous it's a verb, while Page and Brin became Silicon Valley legends. This week, Page and Brin announced they are officially stepping down as the leaders of Google's parent company and will now take on a more supervisory role.
It is thus tempting to say that an era is over. But Brin and Page had stepped away from the everyday running of their company some time ago. Instead, it is perhaps more interesting to think about how the company they started is at something of a crossroads, currently caught between their search-based past, and their AI-powered future.
Even now, despite parent company Alphabet housing an almost bizarre array of projects, from life extension group Calico to Waymo's self-driving cars to the secretive "moonshot factory" called X, nearly 90 percent of Google's revenue still comes from its ad and search engine business. Meanwhile, the reign of Google CEO Sundar Pichai — now CEO of the whole company — has essentially been about focusing Google's more ragged elements, and trying to turn those moonshots into businesses.
But if you think about what now defines Google — that is, what defines it in the popular imagination — it is almost exclusively things like its Assistant, which appears in its smart speakers and on Android, its AI projects like DeepMind, and of course, Android itself, the world's most popular operating system. It is, in essence, a search company practically speaking, but as a brand, it is a company known for almost everything else.
That sense of what Google is to the broader public is a useful thing to dwell on. A decade or two ago, Google was the company with the billboards that advertised jobs using complicated math problems and the cutesy, colorful design of its web services like Gmail. Google meant fast, clean, online tools that just worked because they were created by the sharpest minds. And that was what the web demanded then: tools to help you sift through an ocean of stuff.
Once a digital life became the norm, however, we needed something smarter to help us sort through the mass and surfeit of information. It's not enough to just search for something now; it has to come to you. Recommendations, personalization, or a notification telling you it's time to leave your appointment — that is what we expect from tech now.
So as a company, Google is focused on its AI future. Almost everything the company does these days is honed in on the predictive, or the whiz bang of artificial intelligence. Its Duplex tool, which phones places and makes appointments using an AI assistant voice, or its Smart Compose feature which predicts what you want to type are exemplary of this next phase of Google's life — a company that once said its purpose was to organize the world's information is now looking to automate or streamline the stuff of everyday life.
Of course, the other thing Google famously used to say was "Don't be evil." The unofficial slogan looks quite different as the decade draws to a close. Not only has the company gotten off relatively free regarding its highly invasive data-collection practices, particularly compared to rival Facebook, it has lately showed signs of becoming the evil empire itself. Tales of employees being fired for attempting to organize labor have stained the company's image, in addition to claims of a culture hostile to women, and its own problems with fake news.
Google, like all its massive tech peers, is facing the consequences of its own success. It now has not just billions of users around the world, but a role in the day-to-day life of those people. As a result, it has a social responsibility that extends far beyond pat slogans, and also like its tech peers, it has struggled to meet its obligations.
As a business, Google continues to rake in money; it made $7 billion in profit last quarter. But some high profile projects continue to flail, particularly its Pixel phone and laptop lines, which have neither managed to sell many units at all, nor conquer its now notorious hardware problems. And all those genuinely innovative little tools like Duplex have yet to coalesce into anything nearly as stable or as profitable as its ad and search businesses. We don't even really know how much money the company makes from Android, despite it being used by billions.
Google's rise was one of the defining tales of the 2000s. But now that the web and the world has moved into a different era, one that is not only far more skeptical of tech and its approach to privacy but also its general place in our lives, Google needs to figure out who they actually are. Yes, they have an origin story — but now what?
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