It sure looks like Google is having a hard time inventing the future

Earlier this week, Google made serious cuts to its Area 120 startup incubator, cutting half of its projects, according to TechCrunch. The purpose of the 120 area was to give Google employees a place to experiment or pursue their passion projects, in hopes that they might stumble upon the next big idea like Adsense, Gmail or Google News.

But as the economy has recovered, it seems Google is losing its stomach for big bets and experimentation, instead trying to focus its efforts on what makes money today (or services that he only does has work despite losing money, like Google Cloud). Instead of asking employees to spend 20% of their time building goofy apps, CEO Sundar Pichai said the company needed to be 20% more efficient and productive. In a memo earlier this summer, he urged employees to be “more enterprising”, but that sounded more like a request to work harder and find ways to cut costs rather than debark trees that could or not bear future fruit.

This perception has also spread outside the company. According to a recent report by Informationsome recruiters looking to hire employees for startups are starting to turn away from Google because they feel the tech giant’s employees mostly maintain legacy products instead of creating new ones.

The Pixel line seems less innovative than before, and it’s hard to see that will change anytime soon

One of the places where this idea is most evident is in company hardware. Earlier this week, we reported that Google canceled a Pixelbook project that was “in development” to cut costs, leaving other companies to push the Chromebook category forward.

As my colleague Monica Chin pointed out, the original Pixelbook looked more like a halo device intended to inspire other manufacturers and show what was possible with Chromebooks rather than something Google actually expected that people buy. While we don’t know if the canceled Chromebook would have had the same ethos, it’s safe to say that launching any kind of laptop wouldn’t be a guaranteed home run for Google – according to the company. According to IDC market analysis, the company isn’t even one of the top five Chromebook makers by market share or units shipped. Google should convince people to choose its laptop over those from trusted brands like Acer, HP or Lenovo, which it apparently failed to do at any scale with the 2019 Pixelbook Go (maybe be due to its rather high starting price of $649).

Other parts of Google’s Pixel line also feel less bold than before. Remember the Pixel 4, which came with a radar sensor, or the Pixel 2, which introduced squeezable sides to Google’s phones? These are fun and interesting features that gave you a good reason to consider a Pixel. Everything we’ve seen of the Pixel 7 so far makes it look like it’s going to be a relatively minor upgrade, with a very similar design to its predecessor. We’ll find out if that’s actually the case on October 6, but I won’t be shocked if there’s nothing shocking about Google’s upcoming phones.

It would be unfair to say that Google isn’t doing anything new when it comes to Pixels. It is, after all, adding both a smartwatch and a tablet to its lineup. However, none seem to be pushing the envelope, especially the last one, whose design looks outdated for years and will likely be even more so next year after the arrival of a new generation of iPads. Instead of being halo devices that inspire other manufacturers, it just feels like Google is catching up with Samsung (and at this point, it’s unclear if these devices will even be competitive).

This phenomenon isn’t entirely new to Google, and it’s not just limited to hardware. Google is infamous for abandoning projects shortly after launch, and sometimes even before – in the last year or so it has been knocked down over plans to integrate banking services into Google Pay (which has been widely replaced now by a reincarnated Google Wallet), mostly removed from its YouTube Originals program, and transitioned Stadia from a game streaming service to a white-label technology that companies can use for demos and plan add-ons cellular. But there’s a difference between abandoning certain projects and changing your culture to be more conservative towards experimentation. To state with certainty which of these Google actions would require more data, but actions such as transferring assets from a failed experiment to a startup and then investing in the company seem less ambitious than simply restarting the project yourself .

None of this is to say that Google is completely standing still – obviously its core apps and services keep getting new features, redesigns and tweaks. And it’s not like Google has stopped throwing everything it can at the messaging platform wall. The company spends nearly $10 billion a quarter on research and development — that money is obviously going somewhere. But I’d be hard pressed to think of any recent work from the company that really made me sit up and say, “Wow!” Sure, I like watching TikTok occasionally, but on Youtube, and I appreciate Google making Android more customizable and web tracking a little less scary, but these changes are incremental, not revolutionary.

Google’s recent innovations are unlike the coming

Perhaps part of the reason it’s been hard to get excited about Google’s efforts is that it’s focused on innovation. It recently introduced a slew of changes to Workspace, adding “bullets” that let you shuffle your documents, spreadsheets, reminders, and even meetings and emails together. It has also paid some attention to Meet, its Zoom competitor. But while these changes have probably made people’s work lives a bit easier, adding new features in an office suite doesn’t really seem like a step forward for building the future.

Even if Google were to stop all experimentation altogether, it would likely survive — its services are woven into the fabric of how nearly all of us use the internet at this point. But if it doesn’t take big bets, it will be difficult for it to deliver the next Gmail, Google Assistant or ChromeOS and nearly impossible to help invent new categories of technology like self-driving cars or ambient computing. If companies want to attract the kind of people who will build the future, they need to be the type of place where people can actually hang out on limbs and not worry about getting in trouble for barking the wrong tree. It would be a shame if Google became a company where this was not the case.


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