[pullquote] “It is the search giant’s factory for moonshots, those million-to-one scientific bets that require generous amounts of capital, massive leaps of faith, and a willingness to break things.” – Bloomberg Newsweek
Google X. The name immediately conjures a question or three. Google’s unusual and iconic name with a mysterious X bolted to it is intriguing to say the least. Run by a Director with an equally distinctive name (Astro Teller) it seems Google is coming out of left field with its latest projects to maintain Google’s primacy in future markets.
Of course, Larry Page and Google Chairman, Eric Schmidt, are no strangers to way out investments with their recent involvement in Kick-starting the asteroid mining corporation, Planetary Resources and their recent purchase of Makani power.
And now with Google setting up its own private Skunkworks the global giant moves a further step along this innovative path to future proofing itself. Developing seemingly unprofitable ideas like human powered monorails and wind powered kites highlights a stark departure from the efficiency of return based investment imperatives that have hitherto guided most hitech firms.
One reason for this is that this funding of quirky projects like windmill kites and bee-keeping is Google’s way of defining its brand.
Google has deliberately created expectations of eccentricity and uniqueness that help keep its brand fresh and perceptually adaptable to a very fast moving socio-technological cycle.
These projects also boost employee morale, and inspire employees reminding them that they can still change the world while working at Google.
Which introduces one of the major reasons for the development of Google X labs as a separate arm of Googles R & D drive. It allows, some would say perhaps rather cynically, a compartmentalisation between Googles core short term product development and its longer term plans for the tech market. Plans which are risky and will often fail, sometimes spectacularly, or require further developments and investment to become viable.
It’s a clever mechanism where nervous Google shareholders have their concerns partitioned into a budgeted arm established as a secretive and innovative idea factory for its medium to long term future in a way which cannot essentially threaten its core business interests.
So you could logically deduce that Google are making sure that they maintain a somewhat closed shop over potential failures including some very expensive ones which could in volatile times negatively affect their share price and market strength.
Strategically it makes sense as failure is kept, like a poker players cards, close to Google’s chest while its successes can become the glorious things that global press conferences are made of.
Google argues that this is an essential tactic to encourage their tech teams to seek the freedom to explore and develop, free of the excessive constraints of normal investment funding and media scrutiny.
And this is certainly true to a degree, particularly with Moore’s exponential growth of technological understanding proving in many science sectors today to be an understatement. Being able to shotgun a brilliant idea regularly out of many expensive fizzers may well be a winning long term strategy in the highly competitive technology markets.
Bloomberg Newsweek recently commented on Google’s growing predeliction for risky ventures,
“It is the search giant’s factory for moonshots, those million-to-one scientific bets that require generous amounts of capital, massive leaps of faith, and a willingness to break things.Google X (the official spelling is Google [x]) is home to the self-driving car initiative and the Internet-connected eyeglasses, Google Glass. Those successes amongst others are funding Googles unusual willingness to fail with a high percentage of its projects.”
Google X is also a large step outside the wheelhouse of the Search giant despite its purchase of Android and YouTube. Building ‘Better world’ technologies is not something new for the Google. But it is definitely outside the range of its more intangible internet based products and does give one pause at the shift from software and communications to building transport and energy producing products and infrastructure.
Apart from questions as to whether Google can successfully migrate a portion of its success into these new fields, there are concerns over both its impact on the ‘real’ world and the almost covert nature of Google X. Certainly Google’s aims of mitigating climate change via its Makani wind powered kites and its goal to produce one gigawatt of “Green” power cheaper than non subsidised coal power and to do so within five years are worthy goals. But its scope and breadth of acquisition, innovation and market exploitation is not only breathtaking but invites some concern that this Dr Jekyll may also have a Mr Hyde.
Looking at Google Maps alone we can see that fears over Governments abuse of the vast and extensive mapping data in this post “Prism age” is enough to give many liberty guardians conniptions. State use of Google maps right down to local councils and municipalities spying out unapproved house and land renovations is one example of Googles products empowering State power and punitive reach. Another example of projects with both positive and sinister applications is the Google ‘Loon project’. The core of this idea is to float balloons in the stratosphere carrying high speed servers to supply the internet to vast swathes of the earth which are currently inaccessible or very expensive to reach.
So it’s easy to understand how many pundits have concerns about Google expanding its reach and scope of influence, including its ability to map more of the Planet from near orbit. When taken in light of its increasing number of joint projects with various national governments and NASA a potential compromise of its well-advertised ethics is plausible.
To be fair, the Google maps project is also responsible for the Google Earth Engine, which collects petabyte-scale satellite images at a range of wavelengths. It then collates them together using Google’s powerful cloud server clusters. Making trillions of measurements, the Earth Engine platform includes elevation and atmospheric data dating back as much as 25 years. The result is a rich set of environmental data with an even richer array of applications, including modelling minefields to raise awareness in Cambodia and Angola and measuring carbon levels in Sumatra’s delicate rainforests. The Google Loon project will allow many parts of the Earth to receive internet that currently are isolated and will do so remarkably cheaply as it has partnered with NASA and gained the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation approval. However, the lack of regulatory code means that the on-board technology of such an aircraft is unaddressed by most civil aviation authorities as the Loon balloons do not qualify as UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) thus removing many aviation regulations from them.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the arm of the UN that helps draft regulations and Internet-related treaties, has not fully addressed the issue of broadband Internet beamed down from a mobile stratospheric network. In the late nineties, when confronted with the possibility for stationary stratospheric platforms, the ITU decided that since those stratospheric platforms in question were supposedly stationary, it was up to sovereign nations to allow or disallow them. Because they couldn’t revolve around the Earth like satellites, it wasn’t necessary to apply space treaties to them. So in terms of telecommunications, the roving potential of Google’s Loons is thus unaddressed in the international forum.
Google seems increasingly adept at finding government approval for their large scale ventures as well as exploiting loopholes in legislation to create undertakings like the Loon Project. A development, which further expands the company’s ability to collect data, creates new markets and provides the means to control those markets. Such actions, though not intrinsically unethical, can be troubling in terms of the tremendous scale and ambition of such projects and their impact. They also beg the question, just what and for whom is this ‘better’ world which Google is taking us into?
So at first glance its not clear from simply looking at Google and Google X projects whether we can truly trust this corporate juggernaut with its distinctive motto, “ Don’t be Evil”.
Nor can it at all be suggested that the company has nefarious plans for the future, but rather that we do not know precisely just what Googles long term plans are. Perhaps Google doesn’t know exactly either, but the scale of their projects like Earth Engine and Project Loon certainly suggests a technological and market creation/expansion process well beyond the reach of previous technology giants. Perhaps in examining Googles more common business practices is where we perhaps can glean a more complete picture of the nature of this evolving tech giant.
Google has become over the last decade something rather unexpected. Starting as “just a search engine” Google has become the largest media owner on the planet.
They drive a vast percentage of business in this online world, yet manage to operate with impunity, compared to regulated press and media outlets, who are their only competition in selling ad space.
They drive a vast percentage of business in this online world yet manage to operate with impunity, compared to regulated press and media outlets, who are their only competition in selling ad space. They scrape (almost) every site on the web, charge companies for sending visitors following a navigational search. If you opt out of advertising for your brand name, then Google will punish you by allowing your competitors to bid against your brand keywords.
This business practice belies the well-marketed soft and fuzzy Google image and shows a somewhat harder and flintier aspect, which quite ruthlessly rewards and punishes clients by how they use Googles services. A common experience with small business owners is that often they are big enough to be assigned a Google Account Manager, but they are not big enough to have in-house marketing resources. These companies place their trust in Google, assuming a Google “Account Manager” is meant to help you make the right decision for your business, right? But the experience of many small businesses is that this is not their primary job.
Its seems that for many Google account managers, they exist to maximise your spend even if that is done at the expense of your profitability. Hype and pressure tactics seem to be shifting towards the more evil end of the scale at least in the experience of the unwary small business owner.
Let’s be honest though, with any sales organisation, there is an inevitable culture of self-interest and commission hunting that emerges under the pressure cooker of today’s commercial environment, sometimes at the expense of the consumer. The recent news that Google are removing the 20% free time for “innovation” open to its employees, which brought us genuinely life changing projects like Google Maps is indicative of a harsher sea change in the company policies. The recent court filings where Google made it clear that people sending messages to Gmail users could not reasonably expect privacy also gives reasons for worry. Google seems to be tightening up its traditional flexible employee employer relationships, loosening privacy measures and compartmentalising its creative process under the secretive Google X labs.
All these are firm indicators of Googles increasing sales driven focus and show a possible change in company pathology.
The perception from the outside is that commercial pressures are shifting the focus and nature of Google into a more aggressively expansionary mode. This kind of shift does not come without an internal cost to the company though. A recent transcript of a Google Ad words account manager shows hints that (at least for some of its staff) there has been a change in how the company prosecutes its terms of service.
The concerning recording published by Martin MacDonald, Marketing Director for Expedia is yet another indication not all is well within company practice.
“I’m gonna go go… [inaudible].
Shut your… Oh What the F. Why did you upgrade your account without talking to me? You… They went to enhanced campaigns and did not talk to me.
I’m pissed off.
You said what?
Yeah I know.
This would have been easier.
Now I gotta like pitch call extensions, and sitelinks, and then leave.
Yeah, there you go, Grant knows about them sitelinks! Heheheh.
Yeah, some kind of water pure, portable water purifier.
Those bridge pages or parked domains. Those are pretty bad. I don’t even care, I’m not calling them, I don’t want to get…
I just want to get uhmmm, I don’t care, I don’t want to spend more than ten minutes. I’m gonna do, all I want to do is enhanced, then I’m going to get the f**k out, that’s all I want to do…
No. I will never stop being angry. That’s what I am. When you see Russell here next time ask him what my gamer tag used to be…”
The Bridge pages mentioned in the transcript are pages that redirect visitors to another site, which is a classic violation of Google’s own Terms of Service. Basically, this manager is allowing their client to spam making Google complicit in their railroading of visitors.
So on the one hand Google is truly expanding technological horizons and information markets, which can be shown to improve the quality of millions of lives and add to the rich techno-cultural content of the global village. But on the other hand there is a growing culture within Google focused on aggressive business tactics that often prioritise the company’s needs above its clients or the public’s.
Perhaps it is more important to redefine how we see Google ourselves than whether the company is being evil or not in any absolute sense. Google has seen profit in changing the world and expanding markets. This does not mean that everyone employed by Google will be a paragon of virtue – the transcript above clearly puts paid to that assumption. Nor would it be wise to assume that Google will always develop policy that isn’t ‘evil’ as many of us might define it.
Google is a corporation and motto’s aside it must survive and thrive in a rapidly evolving and highly competitive market place. And make no mistake; it will do so any way it needs to as its 4000 retrenchments in 2012 at Motorola clearly demonstrate.
As potential clients and users of Google products and services it would behove us to remember this pragmatic reality as like it or not, we stroll into the future with Google.