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.