Hey, I can see my house from here!
In the space of seven days, Google Street View showed my house to the world, and the Ordinance Survey man came to visit me and asked if he could take GPS readings from my property so that the next publication of the OS would include my house as a little black dot. A curious juxtaposition, I thought. The wife is unimpressed with Google. The man with the van, on the other hand, and the big GPS stick (why does he need such a big stick? I have a GPS thingy in my blackberry!) is strangely welcome, an established component of the firmament. I am under orders to write to Google, and demand that they remove our property from their heinous project forthwith. The reason? Discomfort. And, frankly, that’s enough.
Google Street View is an interesting project. there’s significant investment going into it. Ultra loyal investors are actually questioning the return on investment (though recent results silenced them). It’s all a part of a future vision – Google doesn’t do things the normal way. Business cases are actually not normal – because Google is creating assets, and an infrastructure, and a platform, for a world that doesn’t exist yet. Google is managing for change, and therefore the rules that apply today simply will not apply tomorrow. Therefore, how can you apply today’s rules (i.e. a business case)? And it is not easy. Indeed, Google may be approaching the end of its road in terms of genuine innovation, as a function of scale.
Google began life as an innovator. A silicon valley startup, it was brash, unashamedly different, innovating (and therefore exciting!). As an early public company, it was ridiculously profitable, as its search advertising business accelerated through growth targets like they were a joke. That accelerated profit led to little scrutiny of its other businesses. If you make $100m in a quarter, and invest $10m in hokey projects, that’s ok. And that pretty much continued, even through the YouTube acquisition. The pressure’s on now though to make YouTube profitable in a conventional sense – i.e. through reselling media and doing deals with media houses – and that’s where the vision starts to wear.
The YouTube project direction is interesting for two reasons – first, because it goes against Google’s basic model. Google is free, and that’s important. Free is being compromised by this and other proposed projects. The second reason that it’s important is that there is a sense that Google is bowing to market pressure to support the media sector. Google is no longer redefining segments, but supporting a consensus view of markets. Google has reached a scale where it can make or break industries. It has already done that with segments – like email, satnav – but now it is genuinely threatening an entire industry, media. It could potentially do the same with telco, and the net neutrality debate is well underway. Suddenly we are starting to see artificial brakes being applied to the innovation machine.
Making or breaking industries is expensive. Therefore it is not really something that startups can do – or at least it’s really hard. Segments can be changed or compromised by startups, but not entire industries. So maybe Google is finally reaching a crescendo in innovation. Maybe it’s reached the point where Google needs now to bed down its core business for a few years, and leave the innovation to others. Google’s time as a leader of innovation, essentially, is done. Apple had two phases (Mac / iPod), but it needed to be near-crippled in order to earn the second. Microsoft had one (Windows/Office). IBM’s largely been a follower of innovation, notwithstanding the patent record.