Now, I’m not predicting the company will lose revenue or profits in its core business of search, but rather that Larry Page’s first full year as CEO will be challenging, due in part to decisions made (or not made) back in 2011, and in part to the inherent complications of the businesses where Google now plants its flag.
I’ve got candidates for what those decisions were (Google+ real names’ policy, buying all of Motorola Mobility, not elegantly stewarding Android, muddying the search waters by favoring its own properties), but I think they all boil down to one core thing: Google has often brought products to market before they were fully ready, then played catch up with the competition against a roiling tide of conflicted partners, grandstanding policy makers, and confused consumers. It all adds up to a massive challenge that I think will come to a head in 2012.
Witness Android: the platform needs a strong and steady product-driven hand behind it, but seems at the mercy of handset makers and carriers. There’s hope in the Galaxy Nexus, but that phone is way ahead of the Android pack, and I’m not sure the ecosystem behind Android is going to follow Google’s lead here. Not to mention the goat rodeo that is the patent mess in mobile – an enervating and expensive battle that is always one court order away from throwing a wrench in Google’s plans. In short, Android is a wonderful counterpunch to Apple’s iOS, but it’s also a massive cat-herding challenge.
Or ChromeOS/Book/Apps: Google’s basically taking on the entire netbook marketplace here (Macbook Air and Windows in particular), but is the company really ready to play the game that its competitors have owned for decades? Sure, you can change the rules (Google’s really selling a cloud-based approach to work, rather than a PC-based one), but you can be right on theory and wrong in practice: hardware and the enterprise don’t move as fast as the web in terms of adoption. The company’s strategy of partnering (with leader Samsung, in this case) is elegant, but not at scale. At the same time, Google is taking on Microsoft in cloud software, and while it’s got some impressive wins under its belt, this is not a market native to Google’s strengths. In short, it will be a massive challenge to manage this business to scale and succcess in 2012.
Or Google+: Google is justifiably proud of how quickly this service has scaled (reportedly to more than 60mm unique users a month, in just six months), but questions remain as to the service’s staying power. If you are Google, and you integrate your new service into everything you own and operate (Android, Docs, Search, YouTube, Picasa, etc), it’s not going to be difficult to get a ton of folks to try the service out. I’m pretty sure that Googlers made their “social bonus” last year, given the good initial numbers, but again, it’s going to be a real challenge to turn those initial visits into long term active users who forsake Twitter and/or Facebook.
Or GoogleTV (and by some extension, YouTube): Probably the poster child for “not market ready,” GoogleTV now has very high expectations for 2012, thanks to Chairman Schmidt’s recent comments. But while the company can cut deals to integrate GTV into every new digital set on earth – and through its Motorola purchase, into every Motorola box to boot – it can’t force the kitty-with-a-ball-of-yarn ecosystem of cable companies and Hollywood to get out of the way of making a great consumer product (and Hollywood is still hoping to win its legal battles with YouTube). Again: A massive challenge, one that I doubt anyone (including Apple) will figure out to great success in 2012.
Or even Google core search: Google’s bread and butter is a massive profit and revenue engine, and I don’t expect that to change in 2012. However, it’s slowly losing share to new modes of discovery like Twitter and Facebook, and Google has struggled with how to incorporate those signals into its search service. It can’t come to terms with either of the two major social services over data usage (and presumably money), meaning it’s losing ground in relevance, freshness, and depth. Then there’s the shift to mobile and apps: the world of apps is not easily crawled (and like Facebook, Apple is not eager to let Google do so), meaning an entire new digital frontier is lost to Google’s spiders (I lament this for other reasons as well, but more on that later). And then there’s the need to promote core Google properties, from Places to Google+ to Finance to YouTube to…well, you get the picture. Even though the company claims no bias in its results, the fact is that its partners aren’t buying it anymore (Yelp comes to mind). Lastly, there’s Bing, which isn’t going to stop trying to steal share. Back in the glory days of Web 2, the Web was the only game, and Google was everyone’s dashboard to it. Again, it will be a major challenge to keep Google’s core search business ahead of the game – because the major underlying rules are changing.
I could go on (I haven’t even delved into privacy, intellectual property, and international policy issues, or competition in the ad stack from Facebook and others), but I think I’ve made the point: Google has entered a phase in its corporate life where its future rests on bringing elegant products into markets that are goat rodeos on good days, and snake pits on bad ones. Telecom, entertainment, social, search, advertising? Yikes. “Challenging” seems like a euphemism.
On the other hand, if any company has the resources, the talent, and the willpower to execute in so many challenging markets at once, it’s got to be Google. But this is a prediction post, so let me end with one: Given all Google is trying to do, it will have a major fumble in 2012, one that beats anything the company has done in its long (and mostly fumble-free) history. But hey, every good team fumbles, it’s how you recover that matters. If I had to chose a shortlist for the ball dropping, it’d include Motorola, GoogleTV, and yes, even Google+, which given its high expectations might be set up for disappointment. We’ll see if I’m right a year from now.