Narrative: Alphabet Lacks Focus
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Narrative: Alphabet Lacks Focus (Jan 9, 2017)
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Alphabet’s Verily Launches Baseline Health Study (Apr 19, 2017)
I did a deep dive on Alphabet’s Verily subsidiary a while back for my Beyond Devices Podcast, and also wrote up some of the key themes for Techpinions subscribers here. What I discovered is that Verily, perhaps more than any other Alphabet subsidiary, has been characterized by hubris in trying to solve the world’s problems with technology. Its two most high-profile early initiatives – a glucose monitoring contact lens and a Star Trek-like “tricorder” to check patients’ vitals – both turned out to be vaporware. But at the same time, Verily is doing enough interesting work that it’s managed to secure partnerships with some big names from the traditional pharmaceutical industry (see this chart from my Techpinions piece), and is working with two big research universities on what it calls its Baseline longitudinal health study. It’s that study that’s now kicking off in earnest (and for which the watch Verily announced last week will be used), as the first 10,000 participants come in for their first set of tests and measurements. The Bloomberg article here does a good job characterizing both the current state of Verily and its return to reality after that early hubris, as well as some of the issues that still dog the tech people who run Verily when it comes to privacy and other related issues. It’s very clear that some of the people in charge have very little common sense when it comes to those issues in the healthcare realm, something that’s been a problem for Google too. And of course the biggest problem with the Baseline project is that – as a longitudinal study – it will literally take years for it to deliver meaningful results. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, especially when it comes to solving the world’s big problems, but it has to be grounded in reality and good practices, especially in the healthcare realm.
Google details Talk transition, SMS removal for Hangouts, other G Suite changes – 9to5Google (Mar 24, 2017)
This has been a heck of a long time coming – Google’s various messaging apps have been a confusing mess for ages now, and it’s good to see some rationalization of the portfolio and a bit more clarity about which bits will survive and what they’ll be used for. SMS-style messaging now belongs in the Messages app, which doesn’t have an equivalent on the desktop, while the ages-old Google Talk will finally be retired in favor of Hangouts, which will carry over some but not all of its functionality, with the rest going away. Some users will no doubt be annoyed at some of the lost functionality, but on the whole this should be a good thing for users. Of course, there is still Google Voice, which combines elements of services also found in Hangouts and Messages, so this doesn’t clear things up completely.
After years waiting for Google Fiber, KC residents get cancellation e-mails – Ars Technica (Mar 20, 2017)
In some ways, this story is far from surprising – Google has publicly announced a scaling back of its Fiber activities, supposedly in favor of new technologies. However, in theory it’s also still committed to the small number of markets where it’s actually rolled out service, including Kansas City. And indeed a statement towards the end of this piece suggests Google is still rolling out fiber in new areas. What I suspect is happening here is that Google is cherrypicking the most attractive neighborhoods while scaling back on others, just as other providers have done (just in the past two weeks, I’ve commented on stories relating to AT&T and Verizon around this very problem). Selectivity about where to roll out was always a facet of Google’s Fiber strategy, and for every provider who does this that’s based on a calculus on how much rollout will cost, what percentage of households will buy the service, and how much they’ll spend on average. That then leads to a determination about which houses are worth serving based on some pre-determined threshold for profitability over a certain period of time. I’m guessing that what’s happened here is Google has just raised that threshold by another notch, putting some homes that once made the cut out of the running now, hence these cancelations. Which would make it another symbol of increased financial discipline and belt-tightening at Alphabet.
via Ars Technica
Uptime is a goofy video sharing app from Google’s Area 120 startup incubator – The Verge (Mar 13, 2017)
Google was once famous for the 20% time it gave its employees to work on passion projects, but then word started to spread that this wasn’t really happening anymore. And then last year Google announced the creation of an incubator for employees’ projects, which seemed to be trying to resurrect the spirit of 20% time if not the details. The first app from that incubator just launched, and it’s a co-watching app for YouTube videos. On the one hand, there’s an obvious fit with an existing product at Google, which is a good thing, and on the other it’s not clear why the YouTube team didn’t build this. I’m not sure what value is added by having this be a separate app that doesn’t carry any Google branding (even in the App Store, it’s listed as being offered by Area 120, the name of Google’s incubator). If the main purpose of Area 120 is to keep entrepreneurial employees onboard, then perhaps this will serve its purpose, but on the evidence of this first app, I’m not sure it’s going to lead to anything all that compelling. Having tested the app briefly, the overwhelming impression I was left with was that it was incredibly privacy-invasive – it kept prompting or reminding me that everything I was doing would be shared with friends and/or publicly available.
via The Verge
Given the brevity of Moore’s tenure at Loon, it looks like things didn’t turn out so well, which is a bit surprising given he was thought to be the kind of business brain who would align well with Alphabet’s new, more focused strategy. It’s also a bit surprising because Loon had recently announced that it was making progress in streamlining its technology and therefore getting closer to the point where it might make money. In the end, Moore seems to be either another executive who didn’t jive with the way Alphabet is being run now, or perhaps merely had conflicts with other managers around him.
Twitter’s former head engineer Alex Roetter lands at Larry Page’s flying car startup Kitty Hawk – Business Insider (Mar 7, 2017)
The details of this story aren’t all that interesting unless flying cars are a particular obsession. What’s most interesting here is actually that Larry Page is now doing in separate (often secretive) entities things which in the past might well have been done by divisions of Google. I’ve often said that a lot of what now sits in the Other Bets segment at Alphabet began life as a twinkle in Larry or Sergey’s eye, or as a passion project of sorts, and that’s always struck me as a rather inappropriate use of shareholders’ money. So, it’s interesting to see that not only is Alphabet paring back the Other Bets and exercising greater financial discipline around them in general, but the Google founders are also starting to make those bets with their own money. Both feel like progress.
via Business Insider
Google has a long history of working with carriers – after all, Android was originally presented as a partnership with carriers to create an open mobile operating system, and in the last few days it’s deepened its carrier push around the RCS technology for messaging. This announcement, though, is a bit different, because it’s pushing Google where historically only specialized network equipment and OSS/BSS vendors have gone before, deep into carrier networks to help with software defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV), two of the hottest buzzwords in this fairly arcane world. This is a big departure for Google, which has a somewhat contentious relationship with at least some carriers around the world, not least in Europe. But some carriers are also far more willing than others to outsource key technology to others – Bharti Airtel in India is one of those, and is one of Google’s two launch partners here, though I’m less familiar with SK Telecom’s historic stance on this issue. At a time when Alphabet’s focus overall has seemed to be narrowing, this is an interesting counter-example.
Android Messages will be the new default texting app Google wants you to use – The Verge (Feb 24, 2017)
There are two separate stories here – firstly, a reminder that Google has two separate messaging apps on Android, and it’s still actively pushing both; and secondly, that Google is doubling down on its commitment to the RCS standard and working with carriers and device makers to spread its use on Android. The former is a long-standing story: Google has always had several different apps for the same use case on its devices, a problem that only gets worse when OEMs and carriers add their own. To some extent, though, this standardization around RCS should help with the OEM / carrier side of that, by consolidating the SMS apps into a single standard Android app. But this is also about the richer features enabled by RCS, which is a telecoms-driven standard for richer messaging which is always at least several years behind the feature set offered by third party messaging apps at any given point in time. This is Google’s effort to create an equivalent to iMessage, but one which is far more open and inclusive than iMessage itself is, for better or worse. Google doesn’t control the standard, which is basic in its functionality, and that makes it a tough differentiator for Android, but it may be the best Google can do in this space.
via The Verge
I think the framing here is exactly right – this is part of the broader crackdown at Alphabet on some of its longer-term and less financially viable projects. The new approach – targeting balloons at specific regions rather than trying to blanket the globe – always seemed like the more obvious way to go, but of course balloons are inherently hard to navigate, so I’m intrigued to know how they will manage that. Two big questions remain: firstly, whether Internet access delivered from the sky can ever be really good (see existing satellite-based Internet access, which tends to be slow and bandwidth limited), and whether Alphabet should be in the access business at all (see also yesterday’s Google Fiber item). At least it sounds like this particular project might generate revenues sooner rather than later (and eventually even profits!) but it’s still not clear that it’s going to benefit the core Google business much.