Brad Stone has a long piece in Business Week on Google’s evolution as Larry Page takes over as chief officer and the challenges he’s facing. It’s a great piece and worth reading.
One part, though, struck me as indicative of Google’s central problem:
To some, the Chrome OS project represents Google’s identity crisis—and the inability of its top decision-makers to marshal resources efficiently and kill redundant projects. After all, the company already has a successful operating system—Android—and the two projects don’t mesh. Andy Rubin’s software requires applications to be downloaded and run from a device’s local memory. Chrome, on the other hand, runs applications that sit in the cloud and use a new Web standard called HTML5. Rubin and Pichai “both have huge projects that are being propelled in part because Google values their talent,” says Danny Sullivan, editor of the blog Search Engine Land. “At this point, though, you’ve got to keep scratching your head. Why do they still have Chrome?”
Pichai sees no such conflict and says he’s not building software to suit the conventional wisdom. “Some things give you an easier way out of the door because you are doing something that fits into the hot category of the moment,” he says. “I want to know that we are building something that people will find useful.” While the upcoming range of tablets and set-top boxes all run Android, Pichai isn’t forfeiting that fight, either. “We are building a software layer which will work across every type of hardware over time,” he says.
You could argue this is an advantage; Google has two strong technologies developing and competing within their organization, they have the resources to develop both, and they can choose to back the winning horse.
That might be a convincing argument if Google hadn’t turned both Chrome and Android into shipping products, but they have. It might be a good thing to have this kind of competition within the company, but the products you release must be as a result of a concerted strategy. I don’t read Android and Chrome as indicating that Google has a huge amount of talent and potential; I read it as their executives are too afraid of making a decision because they don’t have a strategy for what they’re doing. Chrome and Android, rather than Google projects being directed by management, seem more like two separate businesses competing with each other that just happen to be under the Google banner.
If anything, Google’s strategy seems to be trying anything and everything and seeing what sticks. Google Buzz and Wave are the biggest examples, but all you need to do is look through Google Labs to see they aren’t the only ones. Having a huge number of projects, some that contradict others, isn’t a replacement for an actual, concerted strategy.
Larry Page’s biggest task is to do what Steve Jobs did for Apple when he came back—clear out the underbrush and give his company purpose again.