Every so often I get an idea for a new website or service. I imagine you do as well. Thinking about new ideas is exciting – all that promise and potential. Some of my favorite conversations open with “Wouldn’t it be cool if….”
Most of my ideas start as digital services that take advantage of the internet’s ubiquity. It’s rare I imagine something bounded in real space – a new restaurant or a retail store. I’m an internet guy, and even after decades of enshittification, I still think the internet is less than one percent developed. But a recent thought experiment made me question that assumption. As I worked through a recent “wouldn’t it be cool” moment, I realized just how moribund the internet ecosystem has become, and how deadening it is toward spontaneous experimentation.
Those of you who’ve been reading for a while may have noticed a break in my regular posts – it’s August, and that means vacation. I’ll be back at it after Labor Day, but an interesting story from The Information today is worth a brief note.
Titled How Google is Planning to Beat OpenAI, the piece details the progress of Google’s Gemini project, formed four months ago when the company merged its UK-based DeepMind unit with its Google Brain research group. Both groups were working on sophisticated AI projects, including LLMs, but with unique cultures, leadership, and code bases, they had little else in common. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai combined their efforts in an effort to speed his company’s time to market in the face of stiff competition from OpenAI and Microsoft.
This past Monday NewsGuard, a journalism rating platform that also analyzes and identifies AI-driven misinformation, announced it had identified hundreds of junk news sites powered by generative AI. The focus of NewsGuard’s release was how major brands were funding these spam sites through the indifference of programmatic advertising, but what I found interesting was how low that number was – 250 or so sites. I’d have guessed they’d find tens of thousands of these bottom feeders – but maybe I’m just too cynical about the state of news on the open web. I have a hunch my cynicism will be rewarded in due time, once the costs of AI decline and the inevitable economic incentives that have always driven hucksters kick in.
Given 250 is a manageable number for a mere mortal, I decided to ask the good folks at NewsGuard, where I’m an advisor, for a copy of their listings. Nothing like a tour through the post-apocalyptic hellscape of our AI future, right?
Well that was something. Yesterday the Center for AI Safety, which didn’t exist last year, released a powerful 22-word statement that sent the world’s journalists into a predictable paroxysm of hand-wringing:
“Mitigating the risk of extinction from A.I. should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks, such as pandemics and nuclear war.”
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!
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.