Facebook has Sprawling, Unfocused Plans for Marketplace (Aug 18, 2017)
Alphabet’s Makani Wind Power Moonshot Unit Struggling (Aug 4, 2017)
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.
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
I first commented on this story when Mark Bergen reported that a deal was in the works a few weeks back, and what I said then was that this was yet another example of the sharper focus Alphabet has had under Ruth Porat. It’s a great example of selling off a business that has very little direct ties to the rest of Alphabet and where the underlying mapping imagery can more easily be bought from a third party – there’s no reason for Alphabet to own satellites itself for mapping.
Verily is one of the most fascinating Other Bets – in some ways, it’s the most completely removed from much of the rest of what Alphabet/Google does, both in terms of its focus and in terms of the business model, which has largely involved partnering with big pharmaceutical firms so far. (We devoted a big chunk of an episode of the Beyond Devices Podcast to Verily a while back, so if you’re interested it’s probably worth a listen – I also wrote a brief summary of my findings here.) Getting outside investment is an interesting way to reduce Alphabet’s exposure to the risks associated with what are rightly called “Bets”, while also potentially allowing these businesses to move faster than they could with Alphabet cash alone, and move into new markets – Temasek is Singaporean, but invests heavily in China. I’m curious to see whether we’ll see this model applied to additional Other Bets, or whether it’s another unique facet of the Verily business which we won’t see repeated elsewhere.
Twitter canceled its annual developer conference, Flight, back in October, and I posited at the time that this would send a strong message to developers working with Twitter, though I got pushback from some people at Twitter. Now, Twitter is selling its developer tools (collectively known as Fabric) to Google, rather validating my initial take on the Flight cancelation (no pun intended). This is certainly a result of Twitter’s narrower focus going forward on user-facing, live content including video, but it reinforces the sense that Twitter has really messed around with developers over its history. Developers will still be able to create and run apps for Twitter, but Fabric was a big part of Twitter’s developer toolset and a major focus of those Flight conferences in the past. Lots of those tools, though, had little to do with the core Twitter product, so there’s definitely some logic in selling it a company – Google – which is committed to providing a broad set of generic tools to developers.
Apple in 2016: The Six Colors report card – Six Colors (Jan 12, 2017)
This Six Colors survey of Apple observers is an interesting exercise, because although this is a crowd that’s mostly made up of Apple fans, most are unafraid of speaking their minds and being critical where warranted (a complete listing along with a link to their verbatim comments is at the bottom of the post). The Mac was the area where Apple was hardest hit in this report card, understandably given the mounting frustration over the lack of new desktops, but I found the criticism on the Apple TV side less warranted – it got decent software upgrades, and the few gaps in video content have been filled, though admittedly it’s ever clearer that it won’t be an important gaming platform. It’s well worth reading the whole thing, because it’s a mostly honest evaluation of the tough year Apple had in 2016, with quite a bit of detail from some of the people who follow the company most closely. The big question for Apple is how it balances the need to please this vocal but arguably unrepresentative audience with its massive base of mainstream users – in 2016 it clearly served the latter more than the former, and got hit hard for it.
Alphabet cuts former Titan drone program from X division, employees dispersing to other units – 9to5Google (Jan 11, 2017)
This doesn’t need much commentary – it’s a minor project within Alphabet, and it fits with the increasingly strong narrative about increasing focus and cost discipline within the company. But it’s also worth noting that this is one of several different efforts within Alphabet aimed at delivering Internet access in new ways, the most high profile of which is Fiber, and the company seems to be scaling many of them back at the moment, suggesting a broader de-emphasis on these goals.
The dream of Ara: Inside the rise and fall of the world’s most revolutionary phone | VentureBeat (Jan 10, 2017)
This piece is probably hundreds of words more than you want to read on Google’s failed Project Ara modular phone, but there’s some interesting history here nonetheless, and it also fits into at least two narratives: Hardware is Hard, and Alphabet Lacks Focus. This is just the kind of project that almost everyone who had any sense outside of Google (and presumably many inside it too) knew would never work – the kind of “great in theory, lousy in practice” thinking that Google often falls into. Smartphones are tough enough without massively handicapping many of the things people care about most with a modular approach. Google did eventually kill this project in the Ruth Porat era of austerity, but it should arguably never have made it past the YouTube video the story starts with.
This is yet another example of the new focus that’s come to Alphabet under Ruth Porat as CFO. On balance, this particular move seems smart – there’s no differentiation in owning mapping satellites per se, especially if Alphabet isn’t going to be providing Internet access with them. If it can recoup some investment and refocus its business in the process, while maintaining access to good satellite imagery and data, then it’s a win/win.
Why Apple’s Critics Are Right This Time – WSJ (Jan 8, 2017)
This piece rehashes all the recent stuff that’s been said about Apple without really adding anything new. AI is mentioned a few times, and that’s the ostensible focus, though it’s not clear that AI is really what’s meant – it’s mostly about voice assistants specifically, and this article repeats a lot of the prevailing narrative about Amazon being ahead in voice, a situation that’s significantly more nuanced in reality. But in some ways the key point here is that we’re starting to see a steady drumbeat of this kind of thing lately, and that’s notable in its own right.
The version of this headline on BI’s site is much blunter, and the gist is that Mac fans are ticked about Apple’s lack of upgrades for the Mac Pro. Some see this as a sign of broader issues at Apple, while others see it as merely a side effect of Apple’s tendency to focus resources on a small number of products at once. I do think the Mac Pro boxed Apple into a corner somewhat – having boasted about the US manufacturing, it likely finds it difficult to back away, but I suspect it may regret some of the form factor choices – the lack of upgradeability means Apple needs to update the computer more frequently, something it hasn’t been willing to do. I think we’ll see an update in 2017, but I’m really curious as to what the new version will look like.
Apple’s 2016 in review – Chuq von Rospach (Jan 1, 2017)
This piece explicitly disclaims the Apple is Doomed narrative, but it’s in line with quite a number of critical pieces over the past year from those who have generally been supporters of Apple. And it still draws broad conclusions about the state of Apple from a series of individual events that did and didn’t happen in 2016. I suspect Apple in 2016 was viewed more negatively than it might have been because there wasn’t a single big-bang new launch – it felt like mostly an incremental year. The one big exception was the AirPods, but they launched so late, and were themselves one of the examples of the problems Apple has faced, that it made little difference.
Apple is losing focus again — with no Steve Jobs coming to the rescue – Business Insider (Dec 20, 2016)
This is one of the most enduring narratives about Apple – that it’s somehow lost its way and is heading for a repeat of the late 1990s. These pieces are often so overblown that they’re hard to take seriously, but the drumbeat does seem to be getting louder lately. Apple always struggles most to control the narrative when it doesn’t have big, exciting, new products to shout about, and it feels like we’re in one of those periods right now.