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.”)
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!
On Sunday The New York Times reported that Google is furiously working to incorporate conversational AI into its core search products – not exactly news, but there was a larger takeaway: Google has got to get some killer AI products out the door, and fast, or it risks losing its core users for good. And if my own family is any indication, the company is already imperiled. More on that below, but first, a bit more on the Times piece.
The article led with big news: Samsung may decamp from Google and partner with Microsoft’s Bing instead. This would be a major blow both financially as well as optically – Samsung’s commitment to Android is a key reason Google’s mobile platform towers over Apple’s iOS in terms of worldwide market share.
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.
How long have I been staring at a blank screen, this accusing white box, struggling to compose the first sentence of a post I know will be difficult to write? About two minutes, actually, but that’s at least ten times longer than ChatGPT takes to compose a full page. And it’s those two minutes – and the several days I struggled with this post afterwards – that convince me that ChatGPT will not destroy writing. In fact, I think it may encourage more of us to write, and more still to consume the imperfect, raw, and resonant product of our efforts.
I’m a pretty fast writer, but I’m a deliberate and vicious editor – I’ll happily kill several paragraphs of my own text just minutes after I’ve composed them. I know that the best writing happens in the editing, and the most important part of composition is to simply get some decent clay on the wheel. ChatGPT seems to be really good at that clay part. But it’s in the second part – the editing – that the pot gets thrown*.
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?
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.