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Summary:

When I read about Google launching a mobile version of Tasks, I was amazed by the attention being focused on what is essentially a to-do list web site. And while it wasn’t worth a story, I shared my feelings via Twitter. Clearly, 140 characters weren’t enough to express the fullness of my thought, but somehow the flippancy of my remark rankled my slightly overcaffeinated friend, Matt Cutts, a respected Google veteran. And thus the debate over Google and its big ideas began.

Sometimes, a tweet is just a tweet. Occasionally it is just a start of a healthy debate!

Earlier today, when I read about Google launching a mobile version of Tasks, I was amazed by the attention being focused on what is essentially a to-do list web site. And while it wasn’t worth a story, I shared my feelings via Twitter. My tweet read:

I think google has no big ideas. this morning they announced a to-do-list. FGS. [For God Sake] Remember the Milk MUCH better.

Clearly, 140 characters weren’t enough to express the fullness of my thought, but somehow the flippancy of my remark rankled my slightly overcaffeinated friend, Matt Cutts, a respected Google veteran who responded to my tweet with a series of comments on my FriendFeed, now aggregated on his blog. Essentially to make a point that I might be off base, he made a list of Google’s big ideas, including some announced just this week:

* Google is funding research on the Singularity.
* Google mapping the oceans for Google Maps.
* Google’s research into deep web/dark web.
* Gmail’s offline availability.
* Google tool to measure broadband, especially useful now that more and more broadband providers are looking to shift to a metered broadband model.
* Google’s Android Mobile Operating System.
* Google Chrome, a fast web browser with a distinct philosophy of ease-of-use and radically improved security abstractions.

Matt’s comments and the responses both on this blog and FriendFeed resulted in some thoughts about what constitutes a big idea, where Google is right and where it is light. Instead of responding on FriendFeed, I decided to share my thoughts with you, hoping that we could have a larger conversation about Google and the big ideas.

For me, startups and products such as Skype, Flickr and YouTube represent big ideas. Why? Because they not only redefine our notions about certain technologies, but they also change our behavior and cause massive disruption. For instance, Skype redefined our relationship with our phone and in the process, disrupted the telecom industry. Flickr made a largely one-way web into a dynamic, thriving social community. Today even our friends at the Wall Street Journal have comments, and the New York Times is hoping to use LinkedIn to foster a community. YouTube made us rethink television by making it dead simple not only to consume video but also to broadcast video.

Similarly, Google’s search changed how we consumed information. Instead of going to destinations, we now consume information by just finding it. What made this “big idea” even more disruptive — Google’s use of data analytics to offer highly focused advertising messages to marry search queries. (Of course, Google wasn’t the one to think of this big idea, but that’s a whole other story.)

From that perspective, Google’s efforts in geo-location services (maps) and its open-source mobile operating system qualify as a big idea. They are not separate efforts but a single big idea. My big belief is that as we transition to an increasingly mobile world, the location beacon takes the role of the TCP, and most mobile services (and applications) find their context from this location beacon. I think Google gets it, mostly because of Andy Rubin and Rich Miller. (Check out their post about their new effort, Google Latitude.)

Giving credit where it is due, I think Matt is right in calling searching the deep web as a big idea. It is a vexing problem –- and has been for a while. My only caveat is that as a search company, well isn’t that like adding more features to their core business?

As noted in the past, they have done some exceptional and possibly radical work in the field of web infrastructure. Big Table and MapReduce are game-changing innovations that brought about a change to the way web builders thought about building the next generation of web infrastructure.

Even though it is debatable, one could add Google’s Chrome browser to this list, but they would have to share the limelight with Apple and Mozilla Firefox because those two are also trying to redefine the browser experience. The browser’s evolution is crucial to the next reincarnation of the web.

However, I don’t think funding Singularity University qualifies as a big idea. Sure they are brave in funding this university, but folks have been funding the Singularity study for a while now. Similarly, Google isn’t the only one making a broadband meter and many different variants have been the on the market for a while now. The offline availability of Gmail or web applications isn’t just a Google breakthrough –- others have been working on that as well.

A lot of what they have offered is me-too products, some of them quite inferior to their competitors. Of course, many were way late to the market. The iGoogle effort is a perfect example. Google’s 800GOOG411 voice search service came to market much after TellMe and other startups such as Jingle Networks’ 1-800-FREE411 had been released. It still has yet to make its mark in the increasingly crowded voice search business.

And if you look at some of the projects they decided to shut down recently, you get the drift. With the exception of the very exceptional Gmail, Google is rather below par when it comes to consumer web applications. (I think Amazon has the real bragging rights when it comes to consumer web ideas.)

Looking ahead, in addition to “location-based services,” I would call the real-time web and applications that tap into the real-time web the big idea. Much of the early excitement in this arena has come from FriendFeed (ironically started by ex-Googlers involved with Google Mail and Google Maps), Twitter and Facebook’s News Feed efforts.

Of course, this is my opinion, and Matt (caffeine or not) will disagree. And so will others.

  1. actually i think Google has a pretty decent track record on large ideas (Maps, Gmail, Chrome, Books to name just a few). they also fuck up some big ideas occasionally too (Froogle, Lively, GoogleBase). but i give them credit for trying.

    however, far more damning than either of the above or the ocean of minor improvements (which arguably is a damn fine way to run a business), is the fact that for the most part Google has a friggin’ terrible record on acquisitions.

    aside from YouTube — which has largely remained independently operated, near as i can tell — i’m hard-pressed to name a raging success that Google has acquired. on the other hand, i think i’ve been incredibly surprised at how little effort they’ve put into integrating / promoting really interesting companies they’ve acquired (Blogger, Dodgeball, Jot, etc).

    seems odd they don’t do more to support acquired companies.

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  2. Om,

    I agree with most of your points here… I also wonder if the “caveat” you mention with respect to features for existing Google products is actually where Google should continue to innovate. It does have unprecedented access to the world’s information and our behaviors why not continue to play there? I would argue that to-do is not a “big” idea to be sure but it does take another slice of behavior that can continue to build on what Google already does really well.

    I believe if they continue to play in the information and behavior data realm they will undoubtedly continue to change the game in one way or another… what you touch on in my opinion is that Google is spreading itself thin with some of it’s other products and failing to innovate with “big” ideas where it really can.

    We are likely to notice the small failures outside the core of their business than the small/big wins within there existing successes.

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  3. I’m not sure how YouTube counts as a big idea but Google Video does not. They were both fundamentally the same idea – make it easy to upload and find videos. The same goes for Skype and Google Talk. Flickr is also not a unique idea. None of those were the first to do what they did.

    Not to take anything away from YouTube, Skype, and Flickr – it’s just that they aren’t “big ideas”, they’re examples of great execution that led to great brands. When a “me-too” product out-executes its competition, it becomes a YouTube, a Digg, a Flickr. The “big idea” is the wrong way to think of these products.

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    1. @Kevin

      If you look at the time lines both Skype and YouTube came long before Google Talk did. They weren’t the first attempts but they captured the magic in the bottle so to speak and then they caused a behavior change. Big ideas are what Flickr etc. represented, not the companies itself. Companies became a symbol of those ideas.

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  4. silicon valley dropout Tuesday, February 3, 2009

    i do agree it seem to me they are playing catchup in many arenas instead of leading the way. but that is what happens when you get as big google size. inside the company because of politics within, or fear of public outcry they tend to play it safe then react to their competitor instead of leading the way in innovation.

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  5. Om, thanks for a thoughtful post. I think everyone will have somewhat different notions of what a big idea is. Certainly a fine measure of how to look at it is whether they “redefine our notions about certain technologies, but they also change our behavior and cause massive disruption,” as you mention. By that definition, a service that derives critical mass mainly from networks effects (e.g. lots of people using it versus deep technical innovation) can be a big idea, and that’s true. Coming at it from the geeky-engineer side of it, I tend to judge ideas more by the technology under the hood or the cleverness of the insight than by the number of people using a product. So I might call something like reCAPTCHA a big idea over (pick a Web 2.0 service that lots of people use). But I’m weird. :)

    Not everyone will agree on what constitutes a big idea 100% of the time, but I appreciate you pushing Google and others to do more big ideas.

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    1. @Matt Cutts

      Your responses merited my response and yes I do hold Google to a higher standard, mostly because they company often talks about those. I am totally in agreement with you that what is a “Big idea” is highly subjective and I made the case of my definition of a big idea. I think from where I stand, what you guys are doing under the hood is monumental, much like what Facebook is doing on the infrastructure side. My issue is (and will be) on the consumer end of things where I feel Google has lacked.

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  6. Om, it’s ironic that none of the companies you cite as having “big ideas” had them. Voice over IP? Online photo storage? Online video? None of these were “big ideas” at the time they launched

    What they did well, and what google does well, is execution in the form of good launch features and iteration. But that isn’t a big idea – unless “sensible business practices” is a big idea these days.

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    1. @Ian Betteridge

      I beg to disagree. For someone who had been following VoIP for a while (and online photo storage), I was completely blown away by how easy Skype made it to call for free. It doesn’t matter who came first – they combined a whole lot of things and their idea of “voice should be free” – was more powerful than anything before. It changed our expectations of telephony. 405 million registered users later, I think it qualifies as a big idea.

      I think you really look at it deeply, what you are saying is Big Technologies. What I am talking about applications of technology as well and a business model disruption. Of course, as I said, it is highly subjective. :-)

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  7. [...] Be sure to read Om’s thoughtful response [...]

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  8. If Tasks is a “small idea” not worthy of an increase in chatter, then thank goodness for small ideas.
    I liked it from day one, but now I can use it on my iPhone, without having to deal with Apple, I’m delighted.
    Small, smart and handy.

    Sorry, but I’m not ready for a Google Bash just yet.

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  9. Ok, so is anyone going to ask about which of these big ideas are going to make money and how ?
    Adsense was the biggest of these ideas because it made Google a viable business. Unless someone tells me how these big ideas are going to make money I’m not convinced they will last. Bottom line they are cost centers.
    For a business a big idea is one that creates a cash cow – is any one of these like Adsense in that regard?
    Even Android is mainly a play to control the next platform for search, right?

    So I am not seeing how these are big in the context of business. Or are we still living in last year’s “land of the Free (as in beer) ” .

    I’d rather Google find a revenue model for one of these ideas. That would not just be big, it would be huge.

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    1. @Nitin

      You should elaborate on your comments. Why do you think Android isn’t a bigger play? YOu and I have talked offline about location and if you start thinking along those lines, you are going to see some interesting angles.

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  10. I mostly agree with this. I think Google has big ideas but their execution of most of them is not great. There are many reasons for this including

    - Too much ADD. At any single point they have way too many projects going on for them to focus on 3-4 big ideas. This results in good products/projects taking a really long time to ship – e.g. Android where it seems like Google is catching up to Apple vs. leading the way or big ideas not being developed fully/well (e.g. Google Health, Google Base)

    - Building consumer web products which need rapid iteration is not in Google’s DNA This is why you don’t see a Twitter / Friendfeed / Facebook come out of Google. Even if they come up with something now, it will look like a me-too. Video is an excellent example of a big idea which failed because Google couldn’t develop / iterate as fast as You Tube, even though both services started allowing for video uploads about the same time. Google had to end up buying YT in the end.

    - Not built here syndrome: Google acquisitions don’t work mainly because it takes forever for the acquired company to move to “Google infrastructure”. Google tools tend to be very difficult to pick-up and who wants to spend 2 years re-writing all their code in the new infrastructure. YT succeeded precisely because it didn’t have to go through this.

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