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7.4.12

Keep Google Weird


There's a sign that hangs in the windows of shops in downtown Santa Cruz, California. "Keep Santa Cruz Weird." It's not unique to that town, of course -- the best known implementation of the slogan is the one seen all over Austin, Texas. Localized versions have also been spotted on t-shirts and bumper stickers in places like Portland and Boulder -- any area where the undercurrent of independent thinking does daily battle with the threat of homogenized commerce. The Santa Cruz example sticks in my mind in particular, of course, due to the five years I spent in that town, whose weirdness never fully recovered from the '89 earthquake, a natural disaster that both wreaked havoc on the landscape and caused a shift in the local zeitgeist, opening crumbled and abandoned storefronts up for Starbucks and Taco Bells -- chain stores devoid of the character that makes the town so unique. So weird.

There are, naturally, growing pains with any company -- particularly one that has had so meteoric a rise as Google has experienced over the past decade and a half. Evil claims aside for the moment, the transformation from a dorm-based project to an international corporation nearly always risks the loss of the character and principles on which the project was initially founded. After taking the helm as CEO last April, co-founder Larry Page stressed the need for focusing the company's countless product lines, announcing during an earnings call that, "We've [...] done substantial internal work simplifying and streamlining our product lines."

It's easy to appreciate the sentiment. As Google grows at a tremendous rate, it risks losing focus, following in the footsteps of companies like Yahoo, which never did all that great a job subscribing to its own "Peanut Butter Manifesto," by pruning away its ever-growing list of redundancy. Surely no one can fault Google for opting to pump more resources into successful properties like Android -- brands with large user bases that require, arguably, even more attention than the company has been able to allot thus far. 

That aforementioned "simplifying and streamlining" meant, among other things, that certain pet projects would go on the chopping block. Notable among the losses was Google Labs -- a segment of the company that always felt like more than simply a department. It felt like a philosophy, a concerted effort to keep some connection to the engineering pet projects that helped keep Google so innovative for so long, allowing employees time to develop on their own projects, without the manner of bureaucracy that can sometimes bog down larger teams. Google described the concept as "a playground where our more adventurous users can play around with prototypes of some of our wild and crazy ideas and offer feedback directly to the engineers who developed them." And sure, many, if not most, never really got anywhere, but those that did offered a more unfettered sense of innovation, be they as actual products or simply ideas that helped drive larger concepts.

The sentiment reared its head again back in October when Google's VP of product management Bradley Horowitz told the crowd at AsiaD that his company would be "doing less of throwing things against the wall," instead focusing on fewer products. Products like Google+. We certainly weren't shy about our disappointment. Sure it was a touch hyperbolic to suggest that the dream was "dead" at the time, but it certainly felt like this Google wasn't our Google.


In a letter released this week celebrating a year running the company, Page opened by reiterating the philosophy of focus. "Google has so many opportunities that, unless we make some hard choices, we end up spreading ourselves too thin and don't have the impact we want," Page wrote. "So we have closed or combined over 30 products, including projects like Knol and Sidewiki." The executive wraps things up with a decidedly different message, recounting a beloved college course centered on the principle of "a healthy disregard for the impossible," a philosophy that surely informed the launch of the search engine once known as BackRub. "It may sound nuts," explains Page, still waxing a bit nostalgic, "but I've found that it's easier to make progress on mega-ambitious goals than on less risky projects."

It's a sentiment that's surely felt a bit out of place for those monitoring Google's projects, as of late. The example that Page jumps to in his letter is Google+ Hangouts, the product of "a small committed team that was crazy enough to believe this was possible." For most, however, Google+ has exemplified the opposite -- a once crazily innovative company that has spent more recent times focused on more mundane projects. In the grand scheme of things, it's hard to frame the company's Facebook killer as a direct manifestation of the spirit that altered Page's way of thinking one crazy undergraduate summer. Sure there are innovative features to be had, but taken as a whole, the project feels like a play at an existing property -- a play we've already seen Google make a number of times.

It's hard not to view the company as having lost some of that creative steam, some of that craziness, some of that weirdness that helped Google redefine the technological landscape. From time to time, the company drops a reminder of such innovation, however, a hopeful sign that Googlers are, in fact, still toiling away on pieces of nascent disruption -- be it in the mysterious X lab or elsewhere. The company's self-driving cars certainly captured our imagination, as did the slew of April Fool's pranks it cooked up, even if those were created only in jest. ProjectGlass, the augmented reality glasses that we've been hearing whispers about, which finally got a name this week. Google announced that it will begin testing the project in public, and began soliciting feedback from the company, an honest attempt to reach out, from a position that makes it easy to forget the needs of a consumer. Even Page's fellow co-founder Sergey Brin was spotted rocking a prototype pair.


With the release of those images and an accompanying concept video, the company has managed to do something it's largely failed to accomplish with projects like Google+: it's captured the public's imagination. And sure, there's seemingly a pretty good chance that, sadly, the heads-up displays may never make it to the eyes of the consumer, but even if they fail completely to reach a final version, the company will surely have plenty of applicable lessons to apply to other businesses moving forward.

Here's hoping that properties like ProjectGlass are not simply remnants of an earlier era, but are instead a sign that, for as large and seemingly vanilla as Google has become as one of the biggest companies in the world, that there's still an undercurrent of weirdness below the surface, constantly waiting to bubble up.

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