It seems like only yesterday that a bunch of breathless articles appeared touting the brilliance of Google’s innovation strategy. That strategy was, if you recall, the spaghetti strategy: Throw a lot of stuff against the wall and see what sticks. Business Week captured the concept well in this passage from a big October 2005 story on Marissa Mayer, the company’s director of Web products and “champion of innovation”:
What Mayer thinks will be essential for continued innovation is for Google to keep its sense of fearlessness. “I like to launch [products] early and often. That has become my mantra,” she says. She mentions Apple Computer and Madonna. “Nobody remembers the Sex Book or the Newton. Consumers remember your average over time. That philosophy frees you from fear.”
As it turns out, though, that innovation strategy wasn’t particularly successful. In a series of recent high-profile statements, Google’s cofounder Sergey Brin and its CEO Eric Schmidt have made it crystal clear that they’ve been disappointed by the results of the company’s new-product strategy and are revamping it. (Larry Page, despite holding the title President of Products, has been curiously absent from the discussion.)
Brin has been particularly blunt. In early October of this year, the Los Angeles Times reported that “Sergey Brin is leading a companywide initiative called ‘Features, not products.’ [Brin] said the campaign started this summer when Google executives realized that myriad product releases were confusing their users. ‘It’s worse than that,’ said Brin, Google’s president of technology. ‘It’s that I was getting lost in the sheer volume of the products that we were releasing.'” The article also quoted Schmidt, who said of Brin’s effort, “That is a big change in the way we run the company.”
Brin returned to the theme of pruning back product development a couple of weeks later in the company’s third quarter conference call with analysts: “What we are concerned about is that if we continue to develop so many new individual products that are all their assorted silos, you will have to essentially search for our products before you can even use them. And then you will have to search before you can do a search, in many cases. Instead what we’re doing now is we are trying to create the horizontal functionality across a range of products, across media types and so forth.”
In a couple of brief blurbs included in an article about “how to succeed in 2007” in Business 2.0, Brin and Schmidt hammer the point home again. “Simplicity is an important trend we are focused on,” Brin says. “Success will come from simplicity … We are focused on features, not products. We eliminated future products that would have made the complexity problem worse. We don’t want to have 20 different products that work in 20 different ways. I was getting lost at our site keeping track of everything. I would rather have a smaller set of products that have a shared set of features.” Schmidt says pretty much the same thing: “We are trying to shape the innovation going forward from here and get things more integrated, make Google more integrated. This is a big change in the way we run the company. In the past the philosophy has been ‘get this done, get it built, and get it out.’ But continuing that, we would end up with hundreds of products named X-Google, and people can only remember five products.”
Simplicity is the new spaghetti. If the statements weren’t clear enough, the company added an exclamation point last week when it announced it was killing off its Google Answers product.
Brin’s and Schmidt’s words amount to an unusually strong, and carefully coordinated, public critique of what until now had been presented as a cornerstone of Google’s success. But they’re probably a good sign for the young company. They show that, in this instance, anyway, Google isn’t falling into the trap of believing the hype about itself – even when the hype originates from its own organization.
What I found most intriguing, though, was Schmidt’s remark that “people can only remember five products.” These guys are sticklers for precision when it comes to numbers, so I’m guessing that the number “five” didn’t just pop into Schmidt’s brain when he was preparing his words for the Business 2.0 piece. In fact, I’m not sure you’d be going too far out on a limb if you were to speculate that five is Google’s current target for a product set. Five is the magic number.
So if Google were going to begin integrating its current products, features, and whatnot into five platform products, what would those products be? Well, you might think that they would match up with the five categories that the company currently uses to present its products: search; explore & innovate; communicate, show & share; go mobile; make your computer work better. But even though that categorization provides some hints, I think it’s too ungainly a list to translate into a sensible product set. A better clue comes from Brin in his remarks during the earnings call:
What we’re doing now is we are trying to create the horizontal functionality across a range of products, across media types and so forth. For example, I mentioned already Google Apps for Your Domain, and that in a sense is a product, but really it just combines a whole bunch of other offerings together, seamlessly integrated together so they can work well for an organization.
Another example which we haven’t gotten quite up and running yet, but when you want to share your documents or your pictures or your videos, it would be nice to have the exact same way to share all those things, to have all that functionality available across all of those media types in the identical way, rather than developing sort of one-offs for each of those products …
Finally, let me just touch on search. You may have noticed more and more now when you do search you will see, for example, images and news stories and products across the top that you can click to. There are increasingly many ways that we are integrating together all of our search offerings so you don’t have to pick where you’re going to search first.
Okay. That seems to point to three products: Search, Apps for Your Domain, and some kind of unified media viewer/sharer (probably building on YouTube). Then you have to add in an advertising product. That makes four. So what’s the fifth one? I’ll take my final clue from a blog post by Google VP Adam Bosworth last week, in which he wrote that individuals “need to be able to better coordinate and manage their own health information.” The fifth product will involve the organization of personal information.
So boil it all down, and here is my best guess at what the five Google products will be and how they’ll be branded:
Google Search (“Google” goes back to meaning just search: for all information types, on all devices, personalized)
AdMarket (a unified market place for buyers and sellers, spanning web text, web video, web banners, print, radio, TV)
YouTube (YouTube expands from video to become the common interface for all media sharing)
YouTools (what Apps for Your Domain morphs into, with different tool sets for businesses, families, universities, and hospitals)
YouFile (a personal information management service, covering health data, finances, etc.)
I admit it’s not perfect. But it’s a start. What I like about this schema is that it begins to give concrete commercial shape to what Eric Schmidt calls “the computer in the cloud.” If search is, as John Battelle argues, the OS (and if the Google data centers form the CPU), then YouFile is the hard drive, YouTools are the applications, and YouTube is the network. AdMarket? It’s the hyper-efficient power supply. Money is power, you know.
Can you come up with something better? How would you boil the Google ocean down to five products?