Indeed, part of the lure of the company to engineers such as Mr. Woods is the deep uncertainty and grand potential of Google’s many big bets – with little indication which will fail, and which will end up transforming parts of society.
“I would be very hesitant to guess that ten years from now we’ll be an advertising company.”
On the outskirts of Google’s sprawling main campus, about 24 kilometres from downtown San Jose, there’s an unassuming building where the company’s future is being created.
Outwardly, there’s little to differentiate it from dozens of others that make up Google’s headquarters. Most employees here refer to the structure as the X-Plex, because it’s home to a division of the company called Google X.
Inside, a group of engineers and designers work in open-concept cubicles, surrounded by walls that often double as drawing boards. Compared to some of Google’s other buildings, which feature indoor green spaces, swings and hammocks, the X-Plex is downright conservative. But over the past couple of years, it is this part of Google’s campus that has spawned some of the technology world’s most audacious plans.
In the early years of its existence, Google was well known in Silicon Valley for spending time and money on higher-risk projects. Some of its most popular services, including Gmail, came about as a result of the company’s “20 per cent time” initiative, which encouraged employees to take one-fifth of their time to work on their own projects.
But in the years following the 2008 global recession, Google’s approach to new projects changed dramatically. In a strategy described by senior vice-president Jonathan Rosenberg at the time as “more wood behind fewer arrows,” it focused on core, profitable areas such as search and display advertising. Other projects, including various forays into the worlds of messaging and social networking, were either shuttered or temporarily ignored.
As Google started taking fewer risks, its rivals capitalized. Between 2009 and 2011, upstart rivals such as Facebook and Twitter began attacking the search business, offering consumers so-called “social search,” which generates a relatively small set of recommendations from trusted friends, rather than the millions results generated by Google’s famous search algorithm.
It was partly in response to those challenges that Google unveiled the most significant management shakeup in its history in January, 2011. During the previous decade, the company had been run by a trio – the two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and chief executive officer Eric Schmidt. But as it grew (it’s now at 46,000 employees, including its Motorola division), Google became much more difficult to manage by committee. In an attempt to become more nimble, the company switched to a single CEO, Mr. Page, with Mr. Schmidt reassigned to the role of executive chairman.
That left Mr. Brin free to do what he loves – tinker with new technology. Suddenly, Google’s “moonshot” projects, for years neglected, had one of the company’s co-founders as a full-time advocate. Today, Mr. Brin spends much of his time working with the staff at Google X.
Not all of Google’s moonshot projects originate at the X-Plex. Last month, Mr. Page announced that Google was creating a new genetics company called Calico. The company’s focus? Curing age-related diseases. “As we explained in our first letter to shareholders, there’s tremendous potential for technology more generally to improve people’s lives,” Mr. Page said. “So don’t be surprised if we invest in projects that seem strange or speculative compared with our existing Internet businesses.”
Google’s entire modus operandi, in fact, is to find problems that are complicated or frustrating for large numbers of people, figure out a way that technology can help – and assume that the money will follow.
Take traffic, that great killer of human time and productivity. Google’s mapping software can help users find the fastest possible route, but it can’t give them back the time spent stuck behind the wheel. So the company has backed technology to make self-driving cars.
Google’s technology essentially creates a 3-D map of the car’s surrounding environment using a roof-mounted laser. The laser produces a detailed map and measures the distance to various obstacles. Another camera near the rear-view mirror is built to recognize traffic lights. The car pulls in speed limit and direction information from Google’s massive Maps database. So far, the Google test cars have driven hundreds of thousands of miles without causing any accidents (although a robot car got rear-ended on one occasion).
Google says it has no plans to monetize the technology at the moment. But driverless cars could prove very profitable – both as a feature to be sold to auto makers and as a generator of data about how people get around.