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.
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.
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.
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?
Watching the hype cycle build around OpenAI’s ChatGPT, I can’t help but wonder when the first New York Times or Atlantic story comes out calling the top – declaring the whole thing just another busted Silicon Valley fantasy, this year’s version of crypto or the metaverse. Anything tagged as “the talk of Davos” is destined for a ritual media takedown, after all. We’re already seeing the hype start to fade, with stories reframing ChatGPT as a “co-pilot” that helps everyone from musicians to coders to regular folk create better work.
But I think there’s far more to the story. There’s something about ChatGPT that feels like a seminal moment in the history of tech – the launch of the Mac in 1984, for example, or the launch of the browser one decade later. Is this a fundamental, platform-level innovation that could unleash a new era in digital?
What’s the hardest thing you could do as a tech-driven startup? I’ve been asked that question a few times over the years, and my immediate answer is always the same: Trying to beat Google in search. A few have tried – DuckDuckGo has built itself a sizable niche business, and there’s always Bing, thought it’s stuck at less than ten percent of Google’s market (and Microsoft isn’t exactly a startup.) But it’s damn hard to find venture money for a company whose mission is to disrupt the multi-hundred billion dollar search market – and for good reason. Google is just too damn well positioned, and if Microsoft can’t unseat them, how the hell could a small team of upstarts?
Today I’d like to ponder something Kevin Kelly – a fellow co-founding editor of Wired – said to me roughly 30 years ago. During one editorial conversation or another, Kevin said – and I’m paraphrasing here – “The most creative act a human can engage in is forming a good question.”
That idea has stuck with me ever since, and informed a lot of my career. I’m likely guilty of turning Kevin into a Yoda-like figure – he was a mentor to me in the early years of the digital revolution. But the idea rings true – and it lies at the heart of the debate around artificial intelligence and its purported impact on our commonly held beliefs around literacy.
Just last week I predicted that Google would leverage ChatGPT to create a conversational interface to its search business, and that Microsoft would do the same in the enterprise data market. I briefly considered that I might have gotten it exactly backwards – Google has a robust enterprise data business in its cloud business (known as GCP), and of course Microsoft has Bing. But I quickly dismissed that notion – figuring that each behemoth would play the GPT card toward their strengths.
While I may have been right about ChatGPT getting a business model this year, it looks like I could be wrong on the details. Here’s The Information with a scoop:
Well, Walmart vs. Amazon is all about big business – a platform giant (Amazon) disrupting an OldBigCo (Walmart and its kin). Over the past two decades, Amazon bumped Walmart out of the race to a trillion-dollar market cap, and the OldCo from Bentonville had to reset and play the role of the upstart. The Token Act levels the playing field, forcing both to win where it really matters: In service to the customer.