At Lux, I routinely invest in companies at the intersection of hardware, software and data. From CyPhy Works (drones) and Evolv (security) to Orbital Insights (satellite data analytics) and LensBricks (computational imaging). We were discussing design ethos and data related features at a portfolio company meeting yesterday when an int’g conversation emerged around how Google sees the world vs other companies like Apple/Facebook/Uber etc. There seems to be a marked difference between their core product philosophies, and quite possibly the differences are deeply ingrained in the very DNA of the leadership and the talent that these companies have developed over time.
It seems to me that Google philosophically sees the world through the lens of data and analytics on that data layer. They started by indexing the world’s data on the web, grew into the mobile web as well, and now with their products like Android, Google Glass, Nest, Google Car etc, there ethos seem to be all about building, capturing, displaying or analyzing functional layers of data on top of the world. Yes, world seems to have given into the idea that all our information online is now being mined to make money for someone somewhere…but has Google forgotten in the process that consumers still want to be amazed, to be fascinated by technology, and to be led into a future that they couldn’t have imagined themselves? Is the magic being lost?
In contrast, companies like Facebook, Apple, Uber etc also utilize data generated by their businesses to further feed their business models, but the fundamental philosophies are not about layers of data, but about magical, aspirational experiences – ethos that appear to be about amazing people, immersing them in new mediums, and capturing their attention more than their data. Facebook is likely generating more original data/content than Google but somehow it doesn’t feel so much about zeros and ones. Apple/Facebook/Uber all service customers in practical ways, but I don’t feel like just another cog in their revenue generating wheel. Certainly my affinity to their brands now feels more personal and loyal, the way Google felt to me 10 years ago. Google relationship now feels how I felt 10 years ago about MS Word, Excel.
It is telling that Google developed Glass around the same time as Facebook’s venture into the virtual reality world with Oculus. Google slapped something relatively silly looking onto people’s faces to add layers of data to aid in our every day lives. The information contained in the augmented reality data layers was timely, contextual and possibly quite useful. Facebook, on the other hand slapped something even sillier looking onto people’s faces, but boy, that experience was magical. Their consumers were transported into a different place, a different world. They could share their 3D environments with other people (e.g. powered by Matterport), travel back in time or on a fantasy adventure, play games or socialize by a virtual beach while watching the SuperBowl (e.g. powered by AltspaceVR). This is just one example, but the aspirational experience of an Oculus certainly won more admirers than Glass. MagicLeap is Google’s next foray into the augmented reality layer, and while it certainly looks more refreshing, its still trying to put layers of information (graphics) on top of our existing world.
Google used to be the gold standard of trust with our data 10 years ago. But is that still the case? Do people trust Google anymore the way they used to? Do they even rely on Google to be the most relevant provider of data to people anymore? We used to ‘google’ everything. We still ‘google’ a lot, but we are also in a world of rapidly growing walled gardens, curated content, and push notifications. Will Google’s data-focused philosophy allow it to win again in the new competitive environment they find themselves in? Don’t get me wrong, I love Google, but I know Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Uber etc now have a larger share of my attention (and money).
Google has been on the fore-front of some ambitious projects and ideas, for e.g. their famed GoogleX division. But is it starting to look more like academic institutions – where amazing technologies get invented but such little attention is paid to design, customer preferences, and to wrapping technology with an amazing product experience that most of the stuff never gets to see the light of day? I am somewhat frustrated that such incredible technical talent, and financial support from the top leadership, is still not building something new we would crave to have. When was the last time you were genuinely excited about a new Google product and became a customer? It was gmail for me, and yes that was a long while back. I love Google’s moonshot ambitions in robotics, drones, autonomous cars, medical diagnostics, life longevity, imaging, satellites, balloons, renewable energy etc. But I really wish more of them didn’t stay as academic projects that resulted in Ted Talks by the inventors but never became properly productized and marketed.
Google, we asked for flying cars…we would still like to have them.