Google doesn’t necessarily need innovation

I’m getting a lot of calls from reporters, asking me for a hot take on my claim yesterday that Google has lost the ability to innovate. And since I’m busy with my new job at Grab, I don’t have time to talk to everyone. So let’s just nip this in the bud here.

Most big companies don’t innovate at a large scale. It’s normal. You have two perfectly valid alternatives for responding to market shifts: You can acquire the innovator (or one of their competitors), or you can build your own competing product and compete head-to-head.

Acquisitions happen all the time. Sometimes the safest thing to do is wait for an innovator to become hugely successful, and then use your deep pockets to buy them up. Google buying YouTube, Facebook buying Instagram, and Amazon buying Twitch are all good examples. Nothing wrong with this approach.

Uber didn’t invent food delivery, but they were able to recognize its potential very early, and utilize their ride-hailing network to get a leg up on the original innovator(s). They were also able to build out the necessary technology very quickly because they have great engineers. And now they’re becoming dominant in the space. Great example of how you don’t need innovation if you can respond and execute very quickly.

Similarly, you may not remember, but Microsoft created the XBox as a response to the Playstation, which was looming as an existential threat to Microsoft’s business. If every household had a Playstation, and it became their window into the online world, then the PC would be obsoleted, or so their thinking went at the time. It wasn’t a guaranteed outcome, but it was dangerous enough to warrant a competitive response from Microsoft. They executed really well and achieved dominance for years, right up until that dumbass VP (what was his name?) ruined everything at E3 a couple years ago, by doing everything I accused Google of recently: Losing touch with their customers, being arrogant, and launching something nobody wanted. Now Microsoft is on the bottom again in that space, struggling to catch up.

Jeff Bezos is an exception. He innovates all the time, and he doesn’t fear failure. Many of his innovation attempts fall flat, but he almost never throws the idea away. Instead he keeps hammering at it until its form is the correct one for success. Amazon continues to churn out innovations at a rate that is much, much higher than for any other company their size, and of course now he’s the richest man in the world.

Google’s problem, in my personal opinion, is that although by and large they are not innovating (which, again, is normal for big companies), they also aren’t doing the alternatives very well. Their acquisitions have slowed; instead they prefer to build competing offerings. (Is this arrogance? Sometimes, for sure.)

But it seems to me they are too slow to respond. For instance they waited years too long to get into both the Cloud and Social spaces, showing a kind of institutional blindness, which wouldn’t be a problem if they would “go to the ground” more often. And when they do respond, they’re slow to execute, because of the complacency and the politics.

These things are fixable.

That’s all I was trying to say in my post. Google’s not going to die, and the sky isn’t falling. But if they’re too conservative to innovate like Jeff Bezos does, then they need to get a lot better at responding and executing quickly as markets open up.

Also, I wasn’t suggesting that Grab is an innovation; we all know ride-hailing is an industry where everyone (including Uber) is copying each other at this point, in an effort to be first to lock in a network effect. But Grab has to solve these problems in Southeast Asia, which I tried to paint as a really unique challenge in my last post. Grab specializes in Southeast Asia, and that kind of specialization and focus is critical, because cultural and regulatory barriers can catch you in surprising ways. It’s the Gerber baby food in Africa problem all over again.

Some people have responded negatively to my post’s tone, because we Westerners (especially in the tech industry) are pretty jaded. My post was a reflection of the experience I had last week in Jakarta, which is a world so different as to be almost something out of the movies. Unless you’ve been there yourself, it’s hard to appreciate how big this disruptor is.

I’ll follow up soon with a post about specific skills and job roles that Grab is hiring for. Google has an interesting problem of too much talent. It’s hard to do anything there because for any idea you propose, three or four teams will run in shouting that they own that, you can’t touch it, and oh by the way, they’re not working on it for a few years. Microsoft calls this “cookie-licking”, and it’s obviously not good, but it’s very common there. I’ve heard from folks at other big names in the area that a lot of companies have this problem. And it’s ironic, because there’s an infinite amount of work to be done, and yet somehow it’s entirely covered by their existing staff, with no room for anyone to do something new. It’s pretty crazy.

I’ll post again soon.


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Steve Yegge

Steve Yegge is ex-Geoworks, ex-Amazon, ex-Google, and ex-Grab, with nearly 30 years of tech industry experience. Nowadays he’s pretty much retired.