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made notable contributions to the bottom line and the company’s overall value. Those include Android (2005), YouTube (2006), DoubleClick (2007), AdMob (2009), and Motorola (2011). And also, perhaps, tiny Upstartle (2006)—this was the company behind Writely, which became Google Docs, which became the core of Google Apps.
As a journalist who loves writing about startups and their struggles and triumphs, I’m always a little sad to see the companies I’ve covered disappear inside Google. I’d point, for example, to Bump Technologies, a Y Combinator company whose mobile app allowed users to exchange business-card data and other files by physically tapping their smartphones together. Bump had some momentum, but it got acquired by Google in September, and a couple of weeks ago the Bump team announced they’re shutting down the service in order to focus on “new projects.”
Then there’s Apture, which helped publishers enhance Web pages (also gone); Wavii, a news aggregator covered by my colleague Ben Romano (gone); and The Fridge, which offered private social networks as an alternative to Facebook (gone).
Once a startup is absorbed by Google, two crucial things happen. First, the founders and employees cash out their ownership stakes and stock options. They become much wealthier, in theory, but there’s no longer much incentive to work startup hours, take big risks, or pour their lives into their product (assuming it hasn’t been discontinued) the way they did when it was just them against the world.
Second, all market pressures are removed. Desktop and mobile search are so enormously profitable for Google that there is only a tiny chance that any other product will ever generate a fraction as much revenue. So, again assuming that the startup’s product isn’t discontinued, it instantly becomes a hobby rather than a business. That’s not a great position to be in, if you really want to innovate and test yourself against the market.
I can’t say what will happen to Nest now that it’s part of Google. Founder Tony Fadell says the company will retain its brand identity and that, with Google’s scale and resources, it will simply be able to get its thermostats and smoke alarms into consumers’ hands faster. “Google will help us fully realize our vision of the conscious home,” he said in a blog post this week. “We’ve had great momentum, but this is a rocket ship.”
But frankly, that’s what every founder-CEO says after they’ve sold their baby to Google (or any big company). The real questions are 1) whether Nest will feel the pressure to keep innovating that comes from a dwindling bank account—the real fuel for most startups’ rocket journeys—and 2) whether Nesters will now start thinking more like Googlers.
Nest promised in its original venture pitch deck that “after the thermostat, we’re going to reimagine every unloved product in people’s lives.” But that’s not a very Googley sentiment. If anything, it’s Appley. I can’t help thinking that the Google rewrite of Nest’s promise will be something more like: “We’re going to make every house into part of a global sensor network, the better to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” If your future home is conscious, in other words, it will be Google doing the thinking.
2. We Don’t Need A New Ministry of Information
There are obviously some big reasons to appreciate Google: it’s full of smart people, and it makes our lives easier and more productive by helping us communicate and find information when we need it. But these services aren’t free. We pay in the form of our attention and the data we reveal—through our online and, increasingly, our offline behavior—about our desires and intentions.
And that brings me to my second big concern about Google’s growth. At a time when our privacy is being assaulted from so many directions—by marketers, by hackers and thieves, by our own national-security establishment—it feels like a bad idea to allow one company access to so much of this personal information. As Google expands into mobile, entertainment, transportation, robotics, and other markets, it will only want to hoover up more and more of our data, heightening the chances that somebody will want to misuse it.
My worry is that any sufficiently advanced search, communications, and sensing infrastructure is indistinguishable from Big Brother—especially when it’s subject to warrantless intrusions by the NSA. Granted, Google and its peers have expressed outrage about NSA efforts that allegedly collected millions of e-mails and other records every day by tapping the fiber optic cables linking its data centers. And they say they’re adding new layers of encryption that may, for now, stymie U.S. and U.K. snooping programs. But simply by centralizing so much data about consumers and businesses, Google will remain an irresistible magnet for hackers, whether they’re wearing white hats, black hats, or gray ones.
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From all outward appearances, Google’s own intentions are benign. Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt seem to me like good guys. But in recent years, Google has developed the somewhat grandiose habit of describing its big investments and R&D initiatives as “moon shots.” That’s a telling phrase. It connotes not just a willingness to take on hard problems and a tolerance for risk, but a Cold War-era will to dominate—to be the first and the biggest.
If no one but Google has the cash or the courage to pursue big, audacious goals like extending our lifespans or photographing every foot of every street on Earth or populating our homes and freeways with robots, then perhaps Google deserves the credit and the eventual spoils. But everyone forgets that the United States’ real moon shot—Project Apollo—was so expensive that the last three missions had to be canceled. (As a first step into the solar system, Apollo was awkward and abortive. Who’s on the moon today? A Chinese rover.)
Moon shots staged by superpowers who’ve drafted every available brain aren’t the right way to organize sustainable innovation and economic growth. That takes a balance of collaboration and competition, free-market enterprise and regulation, ambition and humility. It’s time for Google to come back down to Earth.
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