Blog Post

Google & The Big Ideas

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

Earlier today, when I read about Google (s GOOG) 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 (s AAPL) 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 (s amzn) 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.

81 Responses to “Google & The Big Ideas”

  1. For me, a big idea necessarily includes a business model. Google has clearly not come up with an additional product that includes a profitable business model. GMail, Google Maps, Youtube — all of these are paid for by the traffic they drive towards Adwords.

    Contrast this to Microsoft, who added applications and then business software to their original operating system division. All three of these categories have different business models.

  2. All deep thoughts aside, I think GOOG-411 is an awesome service, and I can tell as a regular user that Google has been making all sorts of tweaks that make it super efficient and accurate. And the competitors have irrelevant and too-long ads, so no thank you.

  3. Let me refine my original post with the benefit of time and sleep. The difference between @Matt and @Om is whether Google’s products are disruptive or merely innovative. For me, disruptive products change the way a large number of people do things and are few and far between. Most companies never come up with one disruptive product. It is like the difference between a hall of famer and a very good player.

    The other thing about looking at disruptive is that it brings the ability to execute on the idea into play. Ideas are often discussed without coming to fruition. Since we are not discussing academics, then execution matters.

    That categorization puts Google with one disruptive product (Search/Adwords), and many innovations in suport of it.

    @Ian Betteridge For me, Gmail falls into the innovative category. Free e-mail was already widley available (hotmail, yahoo). Premium storage was out there for a fee. Also, Gmail’s real purpose was to provide another venue for for Adwords.

    Thanks again to Om for opening his blog to foster intelligent discussion.

  4. Om,

    Great follow-up to your tweet. Google has delivered incredible innovations in the areas of search, advertising, and scalability technologies like MapReduce, but the vast majority of new services they roll out are ‘me too’ in nature. But, that is THE point.

    To really understand Google’s approach, we need to stop thinking about them as being a “Search” company and start thinking of them as being an “advertising” or “audience monetization” company. For Google, the value of each service they offer is in the amount of advertising they can sell on it or the amount of information they can collect from it. They aren’t selling you GMAIL, they are selling advertisers GMAIL users. When you think about it from this perspective, there is no reason for Google to offer radically innovative services. They want services with established user-bases, low cost for rolling them out, and the ability to collect enough information to offer highly relevant ads. Their value proposition to you is rarely radical innovation over competitors, but simplicity, integration with other Google services, a cool feature here and there, and the cost being “free.” Just enough to get some users to switch. THey don’t need or want to invest enough money to turning “Tasks” into the best task management software ever…it just needs to be good enough to get a significant part of the market to use it. The only market they care about dominating (for now) is advertising. Everything else is just a way to bolster their core market.

  5. I feel like you’re not seeing the forest for the trees. My impression of Google is that there are one or two central big ideas from which everything else flows:
    – organize the world’s data
    – do it the way it should be done

    Google’s properties show an attention to real world use that is simply unmatched anywhere else. Sometimes it’s hard to identify these things, but in all cases you can see the absence of ridiculous decisions that other companies make. With all Google properties, I get the feeling that smart, capable, un-biased people sat around a table and asked “what will users actually be trying to do? What will make this work best for as many users as possible?”

    …And applying that strategy to even tiny properties and improvements turns small ideas into big ideas. There were plenty of search engines, but Google came in and did search the way it should be done. There were several major, established free webmail services, but Google came in and did webmail the way it should be done. And Maps. And online advertising. And RSS/reader. And a lot of other things.

    tl;dr: Google’s big idea is successfully implementing small ideas as perfectly as possible.

  6. I think google has had one or two big ideas but its been a while since they have come up with something new – I mean new not just working on an idea that is already being implemented elsewhere .
    They seeem to have their hands on a lot of different places but apart from search not leading the way in a lot of other fields apart from playing catch up.

  7. @Om,

    I’m not talking about “do no evil” – no question about that one ;-) What I was after is the fact that while G’s mission statement is quite broad it is also quite concrete: “the world’s information” – there’s simply no need for big ideas (in the sense used in your post) if the idea is simply a big (the biggest!) dataset… IMO Google is not causing disruption by big ideas in itself, just by their massive approach to everything which in turn is fostering innovation (BigTable, MapReduce) and big ideas!

    That fits with their business model and acquisition strategy: they rarely bring acquired products/services to success, no, they just get access to the data. And if there is no data yet then Google is producing it, e.g. StreetView, …

    Therefore we’re also having all these Google freebies, they need us to produce and improve data…

    And sure, they are getting mobile/location etc. It’s a totally new ocean of data!

  8. You echoed my thoughts completely. They made a great search engine and have been feeding off that for a while now. The company is innovative but other than search, I am not sure if anything else they have introduced is revolutionary.

    It would be nice if you could do a writeup on their Google Checkout (me-too to Paypal) and see how it compares to Paypal after 1-2 years of launch.

  9. Om, while you have some good points here I’d suggest to read Google’s Mission Statement at [1]:

    “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

    They are not here to produce big ideas day by day, they have a very clear mission (which is the big idea) and all what they are doing is following up on it. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed… but in the end all of their (surviving) services/products are fostering their original mission.


    • @Erik Abele Of course they also say “do no evil” but then turn around and take ads from folks who do gender tests in India so unborn girls are aborted. How is that not evil. Corporate mantras are nothing but good way to build a company history. Sorry for being so cynical about this, but have been in the valley way too long :-)

  10. Great post Om. Although I think you were too diplomatic. I think Google has only had two “Great ideas” – making search massively scalable, and making paid search massively scalable. In fact both of these you could argue weren’t even “ideas” since others had already invented the basics, but were two “Great Executions” (or “Extrapolations” if execution sounds too mundane). Actually, really when you think about it, these are the same thing – paid search was just the business model to make search a viable big business. Everything else Google has done has been very Microsoft or IBM-esque, which is we need to have a so so entry in every field.

    By contrast, Amazon’s two Great Ideas – a massive global marketplace, and now, scalable granular cloud web services – both ideas were truly ahead of their time, huge opportunities, and disruptive. Bezons has proven to be a true visionary, and amazing exector in two unrelated fields of the web.

    So by my count of web Big Accomplishments its Google 1, Amazon 2.

    • @jreneau

      Thanks for the compliment. As I have said before, I want this blog to be a place for a meaningful discourse and diplomacy is part of that process. I think Matt Cutts made some excellent points and they needed a response.

      Regardless, I think you and I are thinking along the same lines though I am confident to say that they are thinking big about location and mobile, and they are thinking correctly.

      With respect to Amazon, you are not getting a single argument from me.

  11. Apart from all that have been said, being a public company limits the “crazy/big” ideas that a non-listed company (money making not being the #1 priority) would normally pursues.

    All the current crop of “big idea” companies started in this fashion, once money become #1 objective, big ideas seems to die with it.

    I’m eagerly waiting for the next ‘big’ thing, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be from the current crop.

  12. They had one really big idea and that was to revolutionize search. From then they are more a kind of a trend follower. To get big ideas they buy them. But I think it is quite normal big ideas come from small companies, because they have nothing to loose. An exception are big companies that are one the edge of survival.

  13. @Rob, yes, I think you’re right – Om is thinking “big” as in “disruptive” – and disruptive ideas are often few and far between. AdWords was certainly disruptive – but I think Google has had other examples too.

    Gmail was certainly disruptive – when companies were charging for a few hundred megabytes of mail storage, along comes Google and gives away a gigabyte (remember how many people were convinced it was an April Fool’s joke when it launched?). I’d make a case for Google Docs being disruptive, too (especially in the “Apps for your domain” form).

    In that sense, Skype was disruptive, too. YouTube… yes. Flickr? Not so much. Flickr is a lovely service, but it’s really not a game-changer in any way I can see.

    • @Ian

      With respect to Flickr, I beg to disagree. I think it is what changed our expectations from media online. Like some early blogging services pushed the conversations, sharing and networks on the web. Of course, there were other attempts before that, but Flickr is a standout service in my mind.

  14. Singularity is the central point, Om.

    With Google, I just expect some religion wrt giving me singularity of data, context and user experience. Today, it is too siloed; too many sandboxes coupled with a sometimes murky sense of road map thinking on specific products.

    I would argue that if Google is to realize its full potential and become a company that stands the test of time, it will need to institutionalize a more formal process of selecting the winner seeds and casting aside the loser seeds, something I blogged about in:

    Googling Innovation: Seed, Select and Amplify

    Fortunately, Pichette seems to have setting a process for “feeding the winners and starving the losers,”

    Tear down those walls, give us well-defined workflows, and show more consistent product and user experience zeal.



  15. daniel shannon

    Being able to adjust your stock options is no different than asking a state employee to take an IOU in lieu of a paycheck. Google is no different than Yahoo.

    A long time ago in a cyberspace far far away, young souls attempted to peruse a virtual world that allows great minds to frolic and play while learning a new way of life, away from the corn husking, Horse shoe affixing and crop circling. The balance of power shifted from those with investment capital, to those with minds ahead of the curve. Before you know it, a man who gets a few hundred dollars wants a big share of what a fictitious name like Yahoo created because he could sing to goats.

    Is it advertising or is it actual content. In a journey to the center of the web on earth, looking up into the vast abyss of cyberspace on a multi dimensional plane is it possible to add a new vector or remain flat and stagnant like the others? I find myself no different than any other individual. What to eat, where to sleep, how to afford it and when to buy. The compounding factors noted mean a lot. Who is considering a venture, when can we expect a return and how big will it be? In a field of shiny dimes, how do you know which one has the D stamp from the mint? What one is graded A and why do we want it?

    The web is structured the same way and as we create a second world, a virtual one on earth, how do we choose what platform will be right for us? Every small business has dreams and goals of being a big one, or why take the risk and possibly sacrifice investment capital, sometimes lives or lives of others, to prospect achieving a goal. There are thousands of brilliant minds that get shut down because a department will lack funds.

    Sites like this one,, prod the reader to enlighten and create a more complex mind. Some have the ability to excel naturally, others need to fine tune and debug. The structure of a web site is often depicted from this simple concept. Yes, you have a great idea, though you missed point A, did not connect it to point B, and Points C, D, E and F are then not associated properly with the original subject.

    I am not a scholar, I did not finish formal schooling or achieve a degree, I did not hack any banks or corporate sites, nor do I have the ability to do so. Living in a virutal world for most of my life though, there are realists and there are those that will try to exploit others, there are visionaries and those that just ride the tide waiting for the next ride to bring that rush of excitement.

    Those that “corner markets” or “are able to forsee” things like they consult a crystal ball are most of the time, the one’s on deck, the next big thing, the ones to watch. How do they achieve this status, how long will they remain on a plateau? When will predictions yield rewards, or is it just a losing game.

    will continue later on.

  16. well, if by “big ideas” you mean revolutionary services like flickr and youtube, then i suppose google doesnt have a whole lot.

    but then again, no one really does. google has an astonishing track record considering its ONE company. i mean, in a world where theres a new web2.0 startup everyday, how many new and revolutionary ideas can you come up?

    the slideshow in this post:
    does a pretty good job of analyzing google’s strategies and i think even if it lacks “big ideas” its still very impressive.

    i think google usually doesnt try to come up with the next big idea (the way you might think flickr, youtube, twitter, skype, etc did) but they perfected or innovated within an existing market (first with search, then with advertising, then with image search, maps, email, mobile os, browser, and so forth).

  17. It is hard to have a discussion about what is big without getting lost in a Clintonian discussion of how big is big.

    Om, I think that you meant “big” as a synonym for disruptive. Despite claims from people in my profession, the reality is that there are very few ideas that meet the standard of being disruptive. Skype, iPhone, YouTube meet the disruptive definition. To use a baseball analogy, a grand slam home run is big/disruptive.

    A company is lucky to have one disruptive product in its lifetime. They may offer other innovative products, but typically these are varations on the original theme or designed as defensive against the competition. Best case you can say they are part of the vision of the disruptive idea.

    For Google, Search/AdWords is the only product that would be considered to be disruptive. It is debatable that Google deserves credit for the idea for either. But Google’s execution certainly made it disruptive. Google has other innovative products, but they really are about extending or protecting their search product. I think that Android has the possibility to be disruptive. But it is too soon to raise it to the level of being disruptive.

  18. FWIW, all said and done Google’s track record on big ideas is still very decent

    Google Search/Universal Search
    and possibly Andriod/Google Chrome.

    This is still way better than any other large company.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

    • @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.

  21. 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.

  22. Ian Betteridge

    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.

    • @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. :-)

  23. 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.

    • @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.

  24. silicon valley dropout

    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.

  25. 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.

    • @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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.