The tech press has breathlessly speculated that, freshly invigorated thanks to ChatGPT, Microsoft’s Bing might steal a major distribution partner from Google. First it was Samsung (wrong), then it was Apple (unlikely), and always there was Firefox, with its 200 million monthly users and its tumultuous relationship with its Googley paymaster.
Last week I was traveling – and being in four places in six days does not make for a good writing vibe. But today I’m back – and while the pace is picking up for the annual Signal conference I co-produce with P&G, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on last week’s news – no, not that CNN shitshow, but Google’s big I/O conference, where the company finally revealed its plans around search, AI, and a whole lot more.
Leading tech analyst Ben Thompson summarized how most of the pundit-ocracy responded to Google I/O: “the ‘lethargic search monopoly’ has woken up.” He also noted something critical: “AI is in fact a sustaining technology for all of Big Tech, including Google.” Put another way, the bar has been reset and no one company is going to own a moat around AI – at least not yet. Over time, of course, moats can and will be built, just as they were with core technologies like the microprocessor, the Internet itself, and the mobile phone. But for now, it’s a race without clear winners.
Head to The Verge if you want a summary of what went down at I/O – beyond AI, Google doubled down on devices – positioning itself as a serious competitor to Apple (I’ve been a Google Pixel user for years, and all I want is for the two companies to figure out how to deliver a text…).
Once upon a time when search was new, Google came along and put the whole darn Internet in RAM. This was an astonishing (and expensive) feat of engineering at the time – one that gave Google a significant competitive moat. Twenty years ago, very few companies had the know how or the resources to keep an up-to-date copy of the entire web in expensive, super fast silicon. Google’s ability to do so allowed it unprecedented flexibility and speed in its product, and that product won the search crown, building a trillion-dollar market cap along the way.
Since then compute, storage, and engineering costs have declined in a kind of reverse version of Moore’s Law. Pretty much anyone with a bit of funding and some basic Internet crawling skills can stand up a web index – but there’s been no reason to do so. For 15 or so years one of the biggest clichés in venture circles was “no one will ever fund another search engine.” (A second cliché? “No one’s ever said “Just Bing it.”)
Microsoft today announced a cluster of upgrades to its Bing-ChatGPT product, including:
Eliminating the Bing chat waitlist, which effectively throttled the product’s growth by adding steps to a consumer’s journey.
Integrating more visual search results, which will enliven the consumer experience and potentially engage visitors for longer.
Adding chat history and persistence, a major differentiation between Bing chat and OpenAI’s ChatGPT, and for me anyway, the main reason I didn’t use Bing.
Adding more long document summarization, which is another feature that ChatGPT excels at.
Adding a platform layer to Bing, so third party developers can integrate in much the same manner as they can with ChatGPT’s plugins, which I’ve both praised and trashed in past posts (praised because of their potential, trashed because the model reminds me of the app store, which is a walled garden nightmare).
Overall, this news strikes me as Microsoft upping the ante not only on Google, which now has even more catching up to do, but also on Microsoft’s own partner OpenAI, which until now had a superior product. I’m on the road and not able to write as much as I’d like on this, but it’s worth noting. I’m sure the product managers in Mountain View aren’t getting much sleep these days – the pressure is mounting for Google to respond. And in OpenAI headquarters, the frustration has to be building as well – they cut that deal with Microsoft, and now have to live with its terms.
Last week I wrote a piece noting how my wife Michelle’s Google usage was down by nearly two thirds, thanks to her discovery of ChatGPT. I noted that Michelle isn’t exactly an early adopter – but that’s not entirely true. Michelle is more of a harbinger – if an early tech product “fits” her, she’ll adopt it early and often – and it’s usually a winner once it goes mainstream. The early Tivo DVRs come to mind – and they remain a better product than anything that’s come since in the television world (another example of how entrenched business models kill innovation).
But few early versions of any new product get to “Michelle market fit” on first attempt. For it to happen with an AI chatbot – well before I developed the habit – is rarer still. I mean, I’m supposed to be the early adopter around here!
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.
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.
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.
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?