free html hit counter November 2014 - John Battelle's Search Blog

Google: The Information-First Conglomerate

By - November 21, 2014
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Larry Page on the cover of Fortune, Nov. 13 2014

Last week Google CEO Larry Page got the Fortune magazine cover treatment, the latest of many such pieces attempting to quantify Google’ sprawling business. The business press is obsessed with answering the question of whether we’ve reached “Peak Google.” (Clearly Fortune’s opinion is that we have not, given they named him “Businessperson of the Year.”)

“Peak Google” is what I like to call a “contagious misconception” – it seems to make sense, and therefore is worthy of consideration. After all, we’ve seen IBM, Microsoft, and other companies hit their peaks, only to drop back as they face the innovator’s dilemma.  Search is past its prime, Google is a search company, ergo – Peak Google.

But as the Fortune piece argues (and yes, I’m quoted, for what that’s worth), Google has a lot more going on beyond search. And while it continues to milk that multi billion-dollar quarterly profit center, it’s built five additional billion-dollar businesses – some of which are directly related to its search empire, but others that are not. Google Apps/Cloud, YouTube/Play, Android, Ventures, and Adtech are already past the billion-dollar mark. Huge businesses in waiting include plays in home automation (Nest), healthcare (Calico), transportation (Chauffeur/self driving cars), and connectivity (Fiber). Beyond that group lie a dozen or so potential blockbusters in energy, robotics, AI, wearables, and the unknown moonshots behind the curtains at GoogleX.

It’s that stunning breadth of scope – what Fortune calls the company’s seemingly limitless ambition – that has caused a prolonged internal debate around Google mission statement:

“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Page has been floating trial balloons about expanding Google’s mission statement for nearly two years. When Tony Faddell, CEO of Nest, announced Google’s acquisition to his staff in January of 2013, Page took the stage and took questions from the stunned audience. One staffer asked Page why Google had any interest in a home automation company – it seemed quite orthogonal to Google’s focus on search, apps, and mobile. According to sources at the event, Page answered by acknowledging that Google’s mission statement may not be large enough to contain his company’s ambitions.

Since that first admission, Page has been testing out the idea of an expanded mission, and with Fortune he aired his ambivalence in public, telling Miguel Helft that “it’s probably a bit too narrow.” And on first blush, that seems right – what does a thermostat have to do with organizing the world’s information, anyway?

Actually, quite a lot.

When you look at Google through the lens of what I call “information first” businesses, things start to make a lot more sense. By that measure, Google is not only an information-first company, it’s also the world’s first information-first conglomerate – starting or buying businesses in every market undergoing the transition from “matter first” to “information-first.”

We see the transportation business shifting to information first, for example. The currently maligned but nevertheless extraordinary Uber is proof of it, but so is Zip Car, Tesla, and the entire autonomous car industry. The true value of these new kind of businesses is in how they understand information flows in the transportation markets, then execute new approaches to old problems (how do I get from here to there?) using novel and/or more efficient methods based on information technologies. Uber doesn’t put cars (commodities) or drivers (means of production) first – it puts information processing first. The cars and driver then reorganize to the new information flows and – voila! – a $17 billion company is born in four years. Uber proves that if you solve difficult information processing problems in traditional markets, you can create world beating value. Airbnb, DocuSign, Lending Club, and many more are further examples of the same thesis.

So what markets are ripe for transition to an information first framework? Well, let’s break down what makes for a “ripe” market. I think there are two key attributes of a market ready to be radically shifted by an information-first approach. First, a market where there’s liquidity of poorly organized and processed information. In other words, there’s a ton of data, but it’s not well organized or computed. Think about the world wide web in 1998, for example. Sh*t tons of information, terribly organized and lacking a processing layer. Google came in and – voila – a multi billion dollar company was born in five short years. Secondly, look for a market currently controlled through centralized chokepoints, but with the potential to be rapidly reorganized if and when consumers gain control. Again, look at search – before Google, portals like AOL and Yahoo ruled the web. Everyone went to a chokepoint to “see what was on the Internet.” After Google, consumers took control of their own web surfing.

So…what markets have both data liquidity and are currently controlled by centralized chokepoints? Well, let’s look at mobile. Tons of data, terribly organized, controlled by the chokepoints of carriers and OS vendors. Check! Or, how about healthcare? Oh hellz yeah! Energy? Yep! Connectivity? Most certainly! Markets where there’s not yet liquidity of information, but there’s about to be – home automation, food, retail – are also ripe for reinvention.

The world is turning into information, and that information wants to be organized, accessible, and useful. I don’t think Google’s mission needs to change at all. Whether or not they knew it at the time, Google created a manifesto that I believe will prove to be dead on in the context of an economic shift to a information-first paradigm. And when the history of this era is written, I’d wager that Google will be seen as the first information-first conglomerate to both identify and exploit that shift.

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The Web Will Kill Apps

By - November 17, 2014

wired web dead coverLots of the “apps are killing the web” meme going around these days, with the latest batch of casket sealant come from no greater validator of commonly agreed upon wisdom than the Wall St. Journal. “The Web Is Dying; Apps Are Killing It” argues Christopher Mims, and it’s hard to argue with him given the preponderance of current evidence.

I disagree.

I am in the midst of a long stew on the future of mobile, it’s taken me through deep links and intelligent links, to the future of search on mobile and beyond, and I’m nowhere near finished with either the reporting or the writing – so I can’t definitively counter the Journal’s argument – yet. But I feel it in my bones – apps, what I’ve disparagingly called “chiclets” – are not the model of how we will interact with information, services, or the world via mobile. The best of the web – open, low cost to entry, no gatekeepers, end-user driven, standards-based, universal namespace, etc. – will prevail.

Why am I so sure of this? Because just about every single person I’ve spoken to – some three dozen or so, to date – are convinced we’re in a secular shift from the app model to….something else, something new, something better. I had a great meeting today at the mobile search startup Jack, for example, with people who are super-qualified to have opinions on the matter (ex Facebook, Excite, Apple, et al, backed in a quiet $6mm round early this year by John Lilly and Reid Hoffman at Greylock). And they are not alone – the caliber of people I’ve encountered who share my point of view is extraordinary. Something big is brewing, and I’m deep into figuring out how to frame it. It’s  a big story, and I don’t know if I can tell it as well as it deserves to be told. But I’m going to try, and if you’re reading this, well, it’s your job to course correct my attempts.

Stay tuned. The web as we knew it ten years ago may be “dead,” but its core values and framework are alive, kicking, and poised to once again disrupt the current oligarchs of mobile.

The Internet Big Five: Doubling In Three Years On A Trillion Dollar Base

By - November 16, 2014

From time to time I have tracked what I call the “Internet Big Five” – the key platform technology companies that are driving the Internet economy. Nearly three years ago I wrote the first of this series – The Internet Big Five. I identified Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook as the “big five,” and compared their relative strengths in financials, consumer reach, and technology strengths. Some of the metrics were admittedly subjective – ranking relative offerings in “engagement” and “data,” for example.

It seems about time to take another look at the Big Five, and to consider a changeup – the introduction of Alibaba as a public company in the US certainly merits consideration. But before I do that, let’s quickly take a look at how the companies have fared over three short years.

Nov. 14 big five market cap

The first thing to observe is this: The top five Internet companies had a combined market cap of nearly one trillion dollars three years ago, a very large base to be sure. But in those three short years, the group managed to almost double their market cap – to $1.8 trillion. That’s impressive growth, and a testament to how central the markets believe these companies to be in our economy. Also, in terms of relative market cap, the Big Five have stayed pretty constant, with Facebook lapping Amazon, but not reaching the heights of Google, Microsoft, or Apple. It’s interesting to see that the market still values Microsoft above Google, something I imagine might change over the next three years.

Stock prices show a similar trajectory. You’d have almost doubled your money if you had invested in these five companies back in late 2011:

Nov. 14 stock big five

Clearly these companies are killing it at a very large scale. And Alibaba, at a market cap of nearly $300 billion, can now claim its place comfortably on the list above both Facebook and Amazon.

But what about strategic strengths? This is the area I find fascinating. Two years ago I wrote The Internet Big Five By Product Strength , and featured this chart:

TheIntBigFiveByProdv2-1024x642

Pulling back, it strikes me that the chart needs a refresh – something I hope to do during the more reflective down time of the coming holidays.  I’d also like to add in Alibaba. But a quick scan of this two year-old chart shows some interesting developments.

In Operating Systems, Social, and Entertainment, each company’s position has pretty much remained constant, but Facebook’s Oculus purchase bears watching in all three fronts.  In Productivity Software, Google’s position has strengthened, as has Apple, but I’d give the edge to Google, whose Apps suite has gained serious traction. In Advertising, Facebook is now very strong, Amazon has also strengthened, and it seems Apple has determined that advertising is a necessary evil not worth pushing very hard. “Tablet” doesn’t feel like a category to break out separately anymore – in the next rev, I’ll probably just call it “mobile devices.” In that category, Microsoft keeps trying but not gaining traction, Amazon flopped with Fire Phone but holds steady with Kindle and Fire tablets, and Facebook seems uncertain if it wants to play. Google and Apple remain the kings. Search as a category that bears scrutiny – what is “search” in a post mobile world, anyway? This question is fundamental to the next five or so years in computing, I’d warrant – expect more posts on that over the holidays. In Payment, Apple has strengthened, And in Voice, almost all the players have improved as well.

All of these companies have shifted over the past three years, some in unpredictable ways. With Page back at Google, the company has broadened its scope to include wearables, transportation, health, and energy. It’s become what I’d call the world’s first information-first conglomerate. Apple has kept its narrow hardware focus, expanding slowly into wearables (the watch) and shying from bets outside its clear wheelhouse. The market seems to be rewarding this focus. Facebook has made some big bets with drones and VR, and its advertising business is on a tear. Amazon hasn’t have any breakaway hits over the past three years, and I sense the company is uncertain how to proceed given the maturity of its core market.

In fact, one way to think about these behemoths is to identify and explore their core cash cows, and then map their strategies to diversify from that core. To wit:

Apple ———> Hardware

Microsoft —–> Desktop, Enterprise SW

Google ——–> Search Advertising

Amazon ——-> eCommerce

Faecbook —–> Social Advertising

Perhaps that’ll be the fodder for another post.

Whither the Public Commons? Enter The Private Corporation

By - November 05, 2014

uber-protests-europe

(image) From time to time a piece reminds us that we are in a slow, poorly articulated struggle over what we hold as a public commons. That was the case with Vanity Fair’s Man and Uber Man, a profile of Uber’s Travis Kalanick by Kara Swisher. Swisher deftly captures Kalanick’s combative approach in prosecuting what he calls Uber’s “political campaign” to beat established regulated markets in transportation, a campaign he believes he must win “98 to 2” – because the candidate is a product, not a politician. In short, Uber can’t afford to win by a simple majority – this is a winner takes all scenario.

This gives me pause, and I sense I’m not alone. On the one hand, we praise Uber for identifying a huge market encumbered by slow moving bureaucracy, and creating a service markedly better than its alternatives. That’s what I’ve called an “Information First” company.  On the other hand, we worry about what it means when something that was once held in public commons – the right to transportation – is increasingly pushed aside in favor of private alternatives. Messy as it may be, our public transportation system is egalitarian in its approach, non-profit at its core, and truly public – as in, bound to the public commons through government regulation.

Are we sure we want to outsource our commons to private companies? I think that’s the existential question we face as a society. I wrote about it three years ago in a post What Role Government? From it:

Over the past five or six decades, we’ve slowly but surely transitioned several core responsibilities of our common lives from government to the private sector. Some shifts are still in early stages, others are nearly complete. But I’m not sure that we have truly considered, as a society, the implications of this movement, which seem significant to me. I’m no political scientist, but the net net of all this seems to be that we’re trusting private corporations to do what, for a long, long time, we considered was work entrusted to the common good. In short, we’ve put a great deal of our public trust into a system that, for all the good it’s done (and it’s done quite a lot), is driven by one core motivation: the pursuit of profit.

The question of the role we wish government to play seems even more pressing given the advance of largely private services such as Uber. We are in the midst of a heated social conversation around the topic, and we see the edges of it when silly insta-startups pop up to privatize public space such as parking spots. In my longer piece, I identify a series of areas where we’ve outsourced formerly public “features” of our lives to private companies. The trend has only strengthened since, and I don’t expect it will flag anytime soon.

So perhaps instead of “What Role Government,” or “What Commons Do We Wish For,” the question we need to ask ourselves is this: What kind of a corporation do we want? If we are going to have corporations play a larger and larger role in what we formerly understood to be the public commons, we might want to we spend a few cycles asking ourselves what kinds of behaviors and values we want our companies to exhibit?

Come to think of it, that’s kind of why I started NewCo last year. It strikes me that we’re just starting to have a conversation about those corporate values. I laid out some of this in What makes a company a “NewCo”?, to wit:

Driven by capitalism’s central motive – profit – corporations have become one of the most powerful actors on the global stage. Besides government, no other institution in society has amassed as much wealth, power, and control as the corporation.

But at their core, corporations are just people. And over the past few decades, in parallel with the rise of the Internet, those people have begun a quiet revolution that has redefined what a “corporation” can be.

The global economy is transitioning from hierarchical models of command and control to more networked and flexible approaches. A new kind of organization – one that measures its success by more than profit – has emerged. We call these companies “NewCos.” As the networked, information-first economy has taken hold, NewCos are building innovative, purpose-driven new ways of doing business.

A NewCo views “work” as more than punching a clock or doing a job. The people behind these companies believe work can equate with passion, community, and a force for positive change.

 

It’s fascinating to watch the debate over Uber play out – is it a good actor, or a bad one? Is its CEO a driven role model or a bully? Or is it, perhaps, still figuring out what it really means to have the public trust? Once you’ve won that trust,  well, maybe that’s when the real work begins.

Else 11.03.14: It’s Over, Google. Now What?

By - November 03, 2014

google-s-cost-per-click-growth-year-on-year_chartbuilder-1(image) Our friends in the press have decided that search has had its decade in the sun, and I can’t disagree, at least as it was known before. The question of how it becomes something else is still very much afoot, but not solved. But glimmerings abound, including from Twitter. For more, read on for the week’s best links….

Google’s dominance in search is nearing its peak – Quartz

A number of “Peak Google” pieces are in the air. But let’s not forget that Google has multi-billion dollar businesses in Android, YouTube, Ventures, and Apps/Drive et al. And it’s making plays in auto, healthcare, and energy. I don’t think Page is resting. To wit:

FT interview with Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page – FT.com

Page has been tessting a “we need a new mission” trial balloon for more than a year now, ever since the Nest acquisition (which is kind of YouTube like, come to think of it.) If you follow Google, read this summary of the Page interview.

Twitter’s Audacious Plan to Infiltrate All Your Apps – Wired

I am glad Wired wrote this piece, because I had not yet groked Fabric. Now I want to know much, much more. In short, Twitter’s new Fabric tool set is aimed squarely at mobile developers, helping them do a bunch of things that were previously hard and expensive. This may well get Twitter’s code in tons of apps, and provide, well, a fabric for the mobile web that didn’t exist before. Think AWS for mobile services.

Why the U.S. Has Fallen Behind in Internet Speed and Affordability – NYTimes.com

Reading this makes me angry. Why do I pay nearly $200 a month (two Comcase business plans) for such crappy service? Oy.

So Facebook controls the way millions of people get their news. What should we do about it? — Gigaom

We have a choice to make as publishers – do we take Facebook’s new deal, where we can pbulish directly on its platform? I think readers know where I stand on this one – Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web.

It’s time for a biological commons – Medium

Strong idea, though I’m not savvy enough to understand if the metaphor holds completely.

The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World – Wired

Kevin Kelly never disappoints when it comes to the technium. Then again…

Should Airplanes Be Flying Themselves? – Vanity Fair

This very long piece on the crash of an Air France jet back in 2009 is riveting. Steeped in larger questions of the role humans and algorithms/AI play in our lives.

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