What If Google Goes on Offense?

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.

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OpenAI: Platform or Destination?

Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI (left), and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Image Microsoft

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?

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Neeva Combines AI and Search – Now Comes The Hard Part

The Very Hardest Thing

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?

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Predictions ’23 – The Summary

I’ve used the image above for many years, mainly because I love how surprised the guy looks as he gazes into the crystal ball. Or maybe he’s just sat on something unpleasant. In any case, it pretty much sums up my approach to this, my 20th edition of annual predictions. I sit down, I might have an adult beverage on hand, and I just write until I feel like I’m done.

While reviewing my ’22 predictions (I did pretty well!) I promised to do something new: One post per predictions, ten posts total. But as I began that promised work, I realized it would test the limits of even my most dedicated readers (I see you, kids). So instead I wrote three long form posts, each with three or four predictions apiece. The first focused on AI, the second on advertising, and the third on markets, with a bonus call related to the ’24 election. Having now written all of them, I’m going to summarize them briefly in this “master post.” Grab your own favorite beverage, have a wonderful New Year, and read on!

  1. ChatGPT finds a business model. Because of course it will. Which leads to…
  2. Google launches a ChatGPT-inspired search interface. Because paranoia. Related…
  3. Microsoft launches “Enterprise Explorer” – because there isn’t a big company CEO who doesn’t want some AI to play with.
  4. There’ll be a war between the duopolies of Google/Facebook and Amazon/Apple. Grab your popcorn.
  5. Netflix will triumph. I know…but the next one’s even more far fetched…
  6. Twitter will rebound. (I’ll leave it there for now)
  7. Crypto will go sideways in ’23. But that’ll be a good thing.
  8. Tesla will continue to tank, and not because of Twitter.
  9. Tech IPOs will make a comeback by EOY.
  10. Trump will pull out of the ’24 presidential race.
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Predictions ’23: Crypto, Tesla, IPOs, and Trump Takes a Bow

My first two long form prediction posts focused on big topics – artificial intelligence and digital advertising. This one, my last, will focus on a grab bag of market-related topics that have dominated the headlines at one time or another over the past few years.

Let’s start with crypto. It’s hard to fathom how poorly the crypto market has had it these past twelve months, unless, like me, you were a participant in the Great Crypto Winter of 2018. During that downturn, crypto dropped as much as 90 percent – which means there’s plenty of “down” left in today’s already decimated markets. But what I find most interesting about crypto is how much of it is dominated by a day-trader’s sensibility. How much money did we make today? This week? This year? That thesis of crypto – that it’s all about money – was never what drove my interest in the space. Yes, I bought crypto, and yes on paper I made money – and lost more! But the point was always crypto’s thesis of decentralization, of new approaches to governance, and in particular – for me – new ways of architecting data flows in society.  Those ideas have been gaining traction all year long, and I don’t see them losing steam in 2023.

Then again, the price of ETH and BTC have become leading indicators of the sector’s overall health, and it’s disingenuous to pretend they don’t matter as it relates to whether more substantive investments are made in projects that truly unlock crypto’s potential. A down market may be the best time to invest, but down markets usually mean far less investment. And I don’t see crypto coming out of this down market over the next year. In fact, I predict that while there may be some significant swings one way or another, by the end of 2023, we’ll have essentially seen a push in the price of major crypto currencies. Is that a good thing?  I think it is  – the sector needs to find its floor, and start building from there once again. Everyone got well over their skis in ’21-’22 – and many lost their way entirely. It’s time to find our way back.

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Predictions ’23: Advertising – Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Twitter

I love advertising – particularly digital advertising. There, I said it. Was that so hard? Well, yes, the industry I’ve partnered with for more than three decades can be very difficult to defend – and the past ten or fifteen years have been particularly bad. I’m tempted to say that everything after Google Adwords was a net negative in the world, including Facebook, which was the bastard child of Google, and even the open web and programmatic advertising (a development I’ve previously called “heroic” and “the greatest single artifact of humankind”).

It’s fair to say I have a complicated relationship with what’s come to be called “ad tech” – we developed the first ad servers and banner ads at Wired in the 1990s, I wrote a book about the business and its breakout star (Google) in the early 2000s, I started an advertising-driven open-web business that nearly reached escape velocity around the same time, I still chair an adtech and data-driven descendant of that business today, I’ve work closely with the largest advertiser on the planet for nearly 15 years, I sit on the board of LiveRamp, an essential component of today’s digital marketing ecosystem, I’ve started or advised or invested in countless media companies – most of which are dependent on advertising in one form or another.

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Predictions ’23: AI Gets a Business Model (or Three)

Let’s start our 2023 predictions off with some thoughts on artificial intelligence. With ChatGPT, Silicon Valley seems to have gotten a bit of its mojo back. After two decades spent simmering the magic of Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook into a sticky lucre of corporate profit, here was the kind of technological marvel the industry seemed to have forgotten how to make – a magical tour de force that surprised, mystified, and delighted millions.

Even better, ChatGPT didn’t come from any of those corporate titans – not directly, anyway. Instead it came from a non-profit artificial intelligence research laboratory called OpenAI.  Founded in 2015 with a mission of furthering “responsible AI,” OpenAI is backed by some of the most celebrated names in Valley technology – LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, PayPal’s Peter Theil, Tesla’s Elon Musk among them. Now this was more like it!

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Predictions 2022: How’d I Do? Strangely, My Best Year Ever

I’m planning something different for my annual predictions this year – I’m going to take the balance of this week and write an individual post for each one of my prognostications. Then I’ll write a summary post with short descriptions of each. I usually do ten predictions each year, which means I’m planning on writing 11 posts this week. That’s about as many posts as I wrote for all of 2022. I must be trying to make up for something. And just for fun, I think I’ll release the whole batch all at once, like a proper Squid Games binge. Just feels like the thing to do this year. Perhaps I’m hoping that by writing (a lot) more during this predictions cycle, I’ll kick start my flow for 2023 – as that’s pretty much my only professional resolution for the coming year: To write out loud much more frequently.

But before I do all that, we first must review the caliber of my prognostications for 2022. Twelve months later, how did I do? Let’s take a look:

  • My first prediction was that Crypto Blows Up. Remember, this was written in late December of 2021, when the price of Bitcoin was nearly $50,000. As I write, BTC stands at around $16,500. Many less “stable” coins have been wiped out entirely, and overall, the crypto markets have dropped by nearly $2 trillion since last year. Indeed, crypto did blow up – and many of its heroes are now under house arrest or on the lam. In my prediction I got plenty both right and wrong: “the market will grow massively (wrong) but be beset by fraud, grift, and regulatory uncertainty (right), as well as an explosion of new apps (wrong, unless you count FTX as an “explosion”…).” But overall, crypto did what I predicted: It blew up, big time. Check.
  • Second prediction: Oculus will be a breakout hit, but it’ll  immediately be consumed in the same controversies besetting the rest of Facebook’s platforms. Um, oops. I mean, the second part of that prediction proved true, as Oculus’ flagship Horizons app was immediately beset by allegations of sexual harassment and worse. And early in the year, Oculus sales were looking promising. But I must have been stoned on the first week or two of my new Oculus headset back when I wrote this prediction, because I couldn’t see far enough into the future to realize that pretty much everyone who bought one would use it for a week or two, then leave it forgotten in a bottom drawer – just like I did. I’ll score this a big miss.
  • Next up: Twitter changes the game. Well, I certainly got that right, but anyone who could have predicted the HOW of that statement deserves a place next to Nostradamus in the prognosticator’s hall of fame. In the explanatory text of this prediction, I laid out several major product changes that I felt the company was poised to execute on, given it had a new CEO (Parag Agrawal) who seemed capable of focusing the company on core technology and feature challenges/opportunities. But who could have foreseen the advent of Space Karen and his goons of doom? Not I. I should have predicted that I’d be off the service by the end of the year (you can find me on Mastodon now.) But I’m going to grade myself as mostly right here – Twitter did change the game, big time. Just not in a way anyone could have predicted. Check.
  • Fourth, I predicted Climate has its worst – and best – year ever. The first part of this prediction was a layup – of course things got worse this year. How could they not? Climate disaster stories dominated the news – nearly every week another terrible climate-driven catastrophe was revealed. The latest: the death of at least 25 people in Buffalo, New York just this past week. But determining the accuracy of that “best year” claim is far more difficult. I write: Best, because finally, the political will to do something about it will rise… in particular in the United States. Did that happen? Well, buried in the misnamed “Inflation Reduction Act” was, in fact, proof of that political will. The Environmental Defense Fund called it “the biggest package of climate investments in U.S. history into law,” and they’re not wrong. We did, in fact, do something about climate this year. Is it enough? Not nearly, but it’s a good start. Check.
  • Fifth, “The return of the office... we work best when we work together, and by year’s end, the “new normal” will be the old normal – most of us will go back to going into work.” As with crypto, it wasn’t as easy to predict this back in late December of 2021 – when nearly everyone was saying the world had changed forever, and businesses must bend to the newly powerful will of the independent workforce. By this past Fall, major newspapers were declaring “The early results are in: The return to work is working.” Yes, work has changed forever, and it seems that hybrid/2-3 days a week is becoming the new norm, but I’d say 2022 was indeed the year the office made a comeback. Check.
  • Next, a tough one to crow about but…exactly one week before January 6th, I predicted “Divisions in the US reaching a boiling point. I hate even writing these words, but with the midterms in 2022 and a ’24 campaign spinning up, Trump will return to the national stage.” I don’t like taking a victory lap here, but…well this certainly happened. Check.
  • For my seventh prediction I made the rookie mistake of getting overly specific. The headline: Big Tech bulks up. The specificity: Despite a doubling down in anti-trust saber rattling from the EU and the Biden administration, Big Tech companies must grow, and they’ll look toward orthogonal markets to do it. Meta and Apple will buy gaming companies, Amazon will buy enterprise software companies, and Google will buy a content library. Well, I don’t think I got this exactly right. 2022 was not the year Big Tech bulked up – they mostly spent the year on extreme defense, cutting staff and fighting regulatory oversight. Meta did buy two Oculus related companies, then got slapped with an antitrust action around a similar acquisition in late 2021. Apple slowed its pace of acquisitions to a similar trickle. But there’s some hope for my prediction from Amazon: The company got seriously acquisitive in 2022, buying six companies, including iRobot and One Medical. Google also sped up its spending spree, buying ten companies, but none of them were content libraries. However, just this past week Google acquired rights to NFL Sunday Ticket – and there’s simply no more valuable content play in the US than football. Net net, I think I got this about half right. Let’s call it a push.
  • My eighth prediction was contrarian at the time of writing, but I’d say it came out a slam dunk: “The streaming market takes a pause. The advertising business has yet to catch up with consumer behavior in the streaming television market, and as I’ve written elsewhere, the consumer experience is fracking awful. In 2022, those chickens will come home to roost.” Well…yup. 2022 was the year that streaming paused – a chart of Netflix’s share price acted as proxy for the entire industry.  Check.
  • Number nine: “TikTok will fall out of favor in the US. Everyone is predicting that 2022 will be The Year Of TikTok, but I think they’re wrong in one big way: This won’t be a positive story.” Wow, I’m starting to think I had a pretty good year! It wasn’t easy to predict that TikTok would end up a negative story – This Information story summarizes the service’s momentum early in 2022: Advertisers Love TikTok – Now They’re Looking to Double Their Spending On It. And here’s how the press is categorizing TikTok today: TikTok’s parent company ByteDance admits to spying on U.S. users. Politicians are out for blood. Yep, it’s not been a great narrative arc for TikTok in the United States. Big Check.
  • Finally, my tenth prediction was a massive sandbagger. Here’s the prediction in full: “Trump’s social media company delivers exactly nothing.  Hey, I needed one sandbag in the mix – and this one comes with a heaping side of schadenfreude. The company will become mired in legal fights, and Trump, having grifted a billion or so from favor-currying investors, will move on to ever more ruinous pursuits.” Yep. Well, OK, Truth Social still exists, but it certainly does not  matter, and the company spent most of the year not paying its bills, failing to complete its SPAC, and being generally irrelevant in the national conversation. And while Trump demurred at Musk’s invitation to re-join Twitter, supposedly because Truth Social is a superior platform, we all know he couldn’t stand to play second fiddle to a richer man who commands more reach and takes all the oxygen from the room. Check.
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File Under “Hardcore, Great Men Are All”

There’s so much to say about what’s happening at Twitter, but I’m going to start with one word: “Hardcore.” That’s what Elon said he wants from all his employees going forward – a “hardcore” mentality, a coder-first culture, a sleep-at-the-office-and-pound-Red-Bull kind of sensibility.

I’m pretty familiar with this culture – an earlier, less toxic version of it pervaded the pre-Elon tech world, a culture I reported on at Wired, the Standard, and in coverage of Google and similar companies in the early 2000s. While it had its charms – most of us have pulled an all nighter trying to get a product out – memorializing “hardcore” as a work ethos is a deeply flawed management technique. Not only does it foster unhealthy relationships to work, it also celebrates a toxic brand of male-dominated power – the kind of power that many of tech’s current titans, including Musk, Andreessen, Thiel, and their ilk – seem to believe is threatened. In their writings, investments, and political lobbying, it’s clear that “hardcore” is a philosophy this group of Valley troll-bullies seem desperate to entrench.

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Apple As An Advertising Company: Inevitable, or A $100 Billion Mistake?

Well, until it’s not.

I hope to write something more thoughtful soon, but this piece from CNBC prompted me to at least jot down a placeholder: Apple is clearly coming for the ads business, and it’s starting exactly where Facebook did ten years ago: The app download marketplace.

First, the news – not that it’s that new given many smarter observers have noticed Apple’s recent pivot to advertising. From CNBC: Apple plans to sell ads in new spots in the App Store by year-end.

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