Google continues to be extremely cautious in its approach to generative AI, but it seems to have realized it has to at least mention the subject once in a while – and today’s release of Bard, albeit in limited fashion – is one of those moments. The company is obsessively calling Bard “an experiment” – but it’s managed to orchestrate a slew of press outlets to simultaneously cover Bard’s launch today. Reading through the coverage, my initial response is … underwhelmed – and I think that’s what Google wanted.
From the almost stultifying blog post announcing Bard’s limited release to the sanitized examples offered to the press, this announcement has been calculated to make exactly zero waves. As I wrote earlier, Google seems terrified that Bard might upstage its core business in search.
Once again, Google and Microsoft are battling for the AI spotlight – this time with news around their offerings for developers and the enterprise*. These are decidedly less sexy markets – you won’t find breathless reports about the death of Google search this time around – but they’re far more consequential, given their potential reach across the entire technology ecosystem.
Highlighting that consequence is Casey Newton’s recent scoop detailing layoffs impacting Microsoft’s “entire ethics and society team within the artificial intelligence organization.” This team was responsible for thinking independently about how Microsoft’s use of AI might create unintended negative consequences in the world. While the company continues to tout its investment in responsible AI** (as does every firm looking to make a profit in the field), Casey’s reporting raises serious questions, particularly given the Valley’s history of ignoring inconvenient truths.
I’ve written a long-ish post attempting to answer that question over at P&G’s Signal360 publication, please head there (and sign up for their newsletter!) if you’d like to read the whole thing. Below is a teaser for those of you who aren’t sure you want to click the link (so few of us do these days!).
Last week, while working on a post about what the ads might look like inside chat-based search, I got a surprising note from the communications team at Google. I had emailed them asking for comment on ads inside Bard, which Google had announced earlier in the month. To be honest, I was expecting the polite “no comment” I ultimately did receive, but I also got this clarification:
[We] wouldn’t have anything additional to share from the Search POV, as Bard is a standalone AI interface and doesn’t sit within Search.
Last week I asked if Google was f*cked, and since then quite a few of you have reached out asking what I think the company could do to … un-f*ck itself. “Easy enough to declare the company is too big, too stuck in the mud, too cautious, too dependent on its cash cow,” you told me. “Much harder to advise them on what to do about it.” One of you just sighed to me on the phone, then said “it’s always been this way. No large company can escape the innovator’s dilemma.”
Well, maybe so, but wouldn’t it be fun to try? I’ve been in touch with various Googlers over the past few weeks, as I’m still working on a “What should the ads look like” piece around ChatGPT and AI-driven search (promise, it’ll be done soon). While folks at Google are polite and engaged, they’ve also given me the extended play version of “No comment” – stating it’s too early to declare the business model for conversational search. In short, they’re waiting for the market to reveal itself a bit more before making any public statements or declaring themselves all in on tech’s next big trend.
This question is pulsing through most of the conversations I’ve been having with tech and media industry folk these past few weeks. The company’s narrative has shifted dramatically in the wake of Microsoft’s partnership with OpenAI. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken with is convinced the company is in serious trouble – and Wall Street has validated those concerns by trimming $200 billion from the company’s market cap over the past two weeks.
Given the news around AI’s impact on the tech industry, search, and jobs in general, I thought it made sense to re-up a piece I wrote back in 2018, triggered at the time by the launch of Amazon Go (which, not surprisingly, did not exactly go as Amazon might have wished). I re-read it recently and thought it held up pretty well (and I’ve been on the road for over a week, so fresh pieces will have to wait for a few more days!).
Thirteen years ago this Fall, I found myself backstage at the Web2 Summit, a conference I ran for nearly ten years with Tim O’Reilly. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, had just wandered in, asking if it’d be cool if he joined me onstage for an impromptu conversation. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Google’s Marissa Mayers, AOL’s Tim Armstrong, Twitter’s Ev Williams and Microsoft’s Yusuf Medhi had already come and gone, and it seemed Sergey wanted to put a bow on the proceedings.
It had already been a whirlwind week of search-related announcements. In 2009, all anyone could talk about was the rise of Facebook and Twitter. The “social graph” was reshaping the technology industry, and every company, large and small, was racing to capitalize on the trend. The day before Sergey’s unplanned visit, Mayer had surprised everyone by announcing “social search” – in essence, a hasty integration of Facebook and Twitter results into Google’s main SERPs (search engine result pages). The move was a clear response to a much more calculated move by Microsoft’s Bing engine, which the day before had announced its own social search integration (which it called “real time search”) with Twitter and Facebook.
Do generative AI innovations like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s LaMDA represent a new and foundational technology platform like Microsoft Windows, Apple iOS or the Internet? Or are they just fun and/or useful new products that millions will eventually use, like Google Docs or Instagram? I think the answer can and should be “both” – but to get there, the Valley is going to have to forego the walled garden destination model it’s employed these past 15 or so years.
The question of OpenAI’s ultimate business model has dominated nearly every conversation I’ve had this week, whether it’s with reporters from the Economist and the Journal, senior executives at large-scale public companies, or CEOs of ad-tech and data startups. Everyone wants to know: What’s the impact of generative AI on the technology industry? Will OpenAI be the next Google or Apple? Who wins, and who will lose?
Four years ago this past summer my family and I decided to move to New York, and as I prepared, I called my best friend in Manhattan, the journalist John Heilemann. If anyone could present me with the key to our new city, it was John – he was connected to everything and everyone worth knowing in New York.
But much to my surprise John had something different in mind when I rang to pick his brain. In short, he had an idea for a new kind of company, one he’d been bouncing off of our mutual friend Fred Wilson. John wanted to totally rethink video-based news for what we came to call the “post-linear” information ecosystem – in other words, for a world dominated by Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, and of course the emerging world of streaming.