Should Google Focus? Really?

I’m about finished with the Steve Jobs (Isaacson) biography.  Fascinating (even though many are complaining about mistakes, here’s Gladwell).

As Steve Jobs’s death became imminent, various tech luminaries went to visit him.  One of them was Google’s Larry Page.  Here’s the advice Steve Jobs gave to Google and Page:

The main thing I stressed was focus.  Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up.  It’s now all over the map.  What are the five products you want to focus on?  Get rid of the rest, because they’re dragging you down. They’re turning you into Microsoft.  They’re causing you to turn out products that are adequate but not great.

So, is Jobs right?  Should Google focus?

I must say, I use a lot of google products, even the “adequate but not great” ones:  Google Sites, Gmail, Google Voice, Google+, Google Scholar Citations (a new service), Google Books, Google Documents, Google Reader, YouTube etc, etc.  Are there other options for google products – sure (StrategyProfs for example uses WordPress rather than Google’s Blogspot, I use iOS rather than Android).  But for many of these services I have settled with a Google product. Perhaps I secretly like the fact that many of these products are still in beta.  (You know, the “beta” sorta makes you feel like you are somehow participating in the forefront of the technology or hacker culture – ok, or something like that.)  Well, and I like the fact that most of the google products are free.

But, there is a bigger, strategic question about the coherence of it all.  What is Google all about?  What is it really good at?  I suppose much of their expertise is in cloud-based services.  But that covers just about everything these days.  Maybe they are simply good at hiring sharp people to develop a range of software and then just seeing what works and sticks.  Perhaps they’ve found the holy grail of innovation – you know, that meta-capability that helps them generate new  products in any software-related area.  Perhaps they are just good at trial-and-error and launching their betas quickly.  Or, maybe their search capability simply subsidizes their whims in other areas.  Google has of course launched many products that subsequently have fizzled.  But Google continues to encourage this type of tinkering, along with buying up novel technologies.

Maybe Google is that one exception to ‘everything’ in strategy (like GE) that we highlight in class.

6 Comments on “Should Google Focus? Really?”

  1. Henri says:

    Rather like 3M, a portfolio of technologies and innovators, looking for markets to exploit?

  2. teppo says:

    3M indeed is the example that every pop press book cites – the 15% rule (Gore does a similar thing). Google seems to have taken that even further, from what I can tell. Though they also have some cool technologies for evaluating projects (e.g., internal prediction markets) – more on that later.

  3. Not a very easy question to answer, which is why I used it as an exam question in my strategy course last spring:

    Assignment 4 (6p)
    In Q1 2011, Google made a whopping $2,5bn net profit surpassing most analysts’ expectations. The company also has an extremely strong balance sheet, which is almost exclusively based on the advertising business which has long been very profitable.

    In recent years, Google has become more diversified and is today competing not only with Microsoft Bing and others in search, but with a range of other formidable opponents. These include: 1) Apple in the area of smartphones/devices (Android), 2) Facebook in the area of social networking (Google+), and 3) Amazon in cloud storage and services (Google Cloud).

    Using theories and concepts learned in this course, what would be your recommendations for Google going forward?

  4. BillyMeinke says:

    I wonder how much testing goes into Google products before they are released. Seems as though relatively rough versions of each product are released and then refined gradually as Google receives feedback from users.

    Jobs was great at being cutthroat when it came to products that were less than popular, but then again, Google offers many more free products that Apple ever did. Considering how easy to use and effective Google products are, I think they are doing a great service by reaching a broad audience. Google Apps for Education…docs, sites, Picasa…the list goes on.

    When Google comes out with something new, I’ll give them my attention.

  5. stevepostrel says:

    Jobs’s advice is not so good when a) your revenue model does not contemplate charging end users and b) there are significant network effects involved. A quick-and-dirty Google+ that preempted Facebook would have been a handy thing for Google.

    The other area where Jobs begs the question (in the traditional meaning of the phrase) is his implicit assumption that Google’s quality would be improved by greater organizational focus on a smaller number of products. That assumption might be correct in the automobile industry or the information hardware business, but it’s not clear that it carries over to Web services of the type provided by Google.

    The difference, if it exists, would be that the upfront investment commitment and difficulty of modification after launch are much greater for hardware/software systems than for Web services. Thus, a small group of designers focusing intently on creating a great product–the paradigm that Jobs presumably favors–doesn’t have to include the CEO and other high-level fiduciaries at Google, while it does at Apple. (Collective “focus” in a firm pretty much means C-suite attention.) Hence, focus is more essential at an Apple than at a Google. And the tradeoff in terms of missing opportunities to exploit Google’s skill set and brand name is higher.

    Gmail is a pretty good product, with a high take-up rate. After the fact, it seems like the kind of service that would make Jobs’s proposed “five-things” cut. But before it was launched, I’m not sure it would have looked that good and might have been edited out in the name of focus.

  6. teppo says:

    Google is killing off seven products –

    via Hacker News – more on killing Google Wave:

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