Big New ideas of Google, Backseat to Productivity & Efficiency

Google cut severely its startup incubator, Area 120, cutting half of its projects. It sure appears like Google is laboring to invent the future.

Area 120 was to give Google employees somewhere to test or chase their passion projects, hoping they could stumble upon the successive Big Idea like Gmail, Adsense, or Google News.

But as the economy has turned, it seems Google may be losing its stomach for big bets and experimentation, instead trying to focus its efforts on what makes money today. So instead of inquiring employees to spend 20 percent of their time creating wacky apps, CEO Sundar Pichai says the company requires to be 20 percent more efficient and productive.

That perception has saturated the company as well. For example, some recruiters looking to hire startup employees are commencing to peek away from Google because they have the impression that the tech giant’s employees mainly maintain legacy products instead of building new ones.

One of the places this idea is most evident is the company’s hardware. Google canceled a Pixelbook project “deep into development” to cut costs, leaving it up to other companies to push the Chromebook category forward.

The original Pixelbook felt more like a halo device meant to inspire other manufacturers and show what was possible with Chromebooks rather than something Google expected people to buy. While we don’t know whether the canceled Chromebook would’ve had that same ethos, it feels safe to say that launching any laptop wouldn’t be a guaranteed home run for Google.

Other parts of Google’s Pixel lineup also feel less bold than they used to. Remember the Pixel 4, which came with a radar sensor, or the Pixel 2, which introduced squeezable sides to Google’s phones? Those fun, cool features gave you an excellent reason to consider a Pixel.

Unfortunately, everything we’ve seen about the Pixel 7 so far makes it look like it’ll be a relatively minor upgrade, complete with a very similar design to its predecessor. We’ll find out if that’s the case on October 6th, but nobody will be shocked if nothing is shocking about Google’s following phones.

It’d be unfair that Google isn’t doing anything new regarding Pixels. After all, it is adding a smartwatch and a tablet to its lineup. However, neither seem to be pushing any boundaries, especially the latter, which has a design that feels years out of date now and will likely feel even more so next year after we get a fresh new crop of iPads. Instead of halo devices that inspire other manufacturers, it just feels like Google’s playing catch-up to Samsung.

Perhaps part of the reason it’s been hard to get excited about Google’s efforts is where it’s focusing on innovating. For example, it recently introduced a flurry of changes to Workspace, adding “chips” that let you blend your documents, spreadsheets, reminders, and even meetings and emails.

It’s also been paying some attention to Meet, its Zoom competitor. But while these changes have probably made people’s work lives a little easier, adding new features in an office suite doesn’t exactly seem like swinging for the fences to build the future to me.

It’ll be hard to come up with the next Gmail, Google Assistant, or ChromeOS and almost impossible to help invent new tech categories like self-driving cars or ambient computing. If companies want to attract the people who will build the future, they have to be where people can go out on limbs and not be worried about getting in trouble for barking up the wrong tree. It’d be a shame if Google became a company where that wasn’t the case.