Google executives have always claimed to have studied the rise and plateau of Microsoft — including its innovation dilemmas and its face-off with government regulators — very carefully. The companies actually have more in common than you might think at first glance: backed by the profits generated by breakthrough products, Microsoft and Google came to dominate their respective industries while diversifying madly in search of the next big thing, with varying degrees of success.
We’ll see what Google has learned from Microsoft — and, most likely, vice versa — when the companies share the spotlight Tuesday evening in gorgeous Rancho Palos Verdes, California, at the inaugural Code Conference, formerly known as the D conference. New Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella will kick things off at around 5 p.m. PT in an onstage interview, and he’ll be followed by Google co-founder and special-projects wizard Sergey Brin.
We’ll be live-blogging the action here starting at some point around 5 p.m. The session promises to be an interesting one, as Nadella is a breath of fresh air at the stalwart software giant with a different way of looking at the world from his predecessor, Steve Ballmer, and Brin is, well, a little wacky.
So please join us for Happy Hour with two of the tech industry’s more interesting leaders, with the session expected to last until 7:30 p.m. or so. I can promise frantic typing and halfway-decent iPhone photos, and hopefully the MacBook Air battery is up to the task.
Thanks for hanging out with us this evening! We’ll be back with more coverage from the Code Conference tomorrow, and I’ll be doing the live blog thing again tomorrow night with Eddy Cue and Craig Federichi of Apple, and cocktails will be served before that one, so it should be good.
Well, not a lot emerged from this session, to be honest. Satya and Sergey were very much on message and other than the Skype/self-driving car announcements, noting that would change anyone’s perceptions of Microsoft, Google, or the tech industry really came out. And Gwneyth said a few things.
That’s it for Sergey.
Last question, from a Glasshole, natch: why does it take so long for innovation to emerge? For something like Glass, “there’s been a lot of learning for me about what it takes to get hardware out,” Sergey says. There’s no real good answer to that question, he says, other than it’s just really hard.
Next question: the right to live forever. What’s going on with the Calico project? Google hasn’t said a lot about this beyond an announcement from Page a year ago: https://plus.google.com/+LarryPage/posts/Lh8SKC6sED1
Sergey isn’t involved with Calico but Art Levinson is running it well, he says. This might be the project where Google finally jumps all the way in bed with the Singularity Project.
Next question: self-driving cars and humans: how does the car choose between two bad outcomes, like avoiding pedestrians by driving into oncoming traffic. That’s a really tough question that there’s no real way to answer, and Sergey goes into a list of the safety features of the new self-driving car. It does highlight the weirdness that people feel about giving control over to software.
Next question: the right to be forgotten: can it be implemented? And what’s the follow up? “Great question. I wish we could just forget the ruling. But we’re not forgetting the ruling….” he jokes. One of the many problems with the ruling on the right to be forgotten (background here: https://gigaom.com/2014/05/13/googles-lost-its-right-to-be-forgotten-case-in-europe-and-that-may-not-be-a-good-thing/) is that it’s not clear who is entitled to be forgotten, and what they can request that Google forget.
Next question: how long before the world is ready for Google Glass to remember someone’s name? Google has been careful to avoid face recognition in Glass so far and has asked developers to forgo that technology for now, Sergey says. “Society is still formulating its views on that.”
“There are no Google X projects related to satellites. We do wind up working with a lot of companies,” he says, noting that Google Earth is noting without satellite technology.
First question: satellite. “We already have a fleet of a million satellites….just kidding.” There are no satellite things “I can announce today,” he says. “I also can’t talk about the fembot project.”
Sergey’s talking about whether or not social is a “space” or a product or a feature. There are some things that make sense to be social, like photo sharing, but not everything needs to be social. Google is obviously at a turning point in its social strategy with the departure of Google+ leader Vic Gundotra.
How about social? “I think I’m the worst person to speak about social. I’m not the most social person. I’m kind of a weirdo.”
After mostly failing with Satya, Kara tries to get Sergey to talk about competitors. Google X is a little weird, in that competition isn’t really there because the whole point of Google X is to work on things that don’t exist. But when Google is viewed as a whole, “we are at our best when we change how something is viewed.” He brings up the example of Gmail: web email was around, but Gmail changed the game.
Patent stuff would be better if there was a smoother path to settling differences. He seems skeptical about juries deciding tech patent cases, noting the “subtleties” involved. This is a fairly widespread view among tech people I’ve encountered.
Think about two different worlds: somebody invents something new, and they bring it to the masses. What would the world look like if they had protection for this world, and what would the world look like if the person had never come up with the new thing? “Whatever patent regime you have, it has to be that society is getting a good trade, in that the world is better off than if the person had never thought of that idea.”
What about patents? Google X develops a lot of hardware, and one thing about each Google X project that Sergey instituted is that there needs to be “atoms, not just bits” in every Google X project. He thinks the patent system could be improved but “it is what it is.” Sergey would exclude business-process patents and would have “different terms” on classes of patents to shorten the time during which a patent is active. “I don’t think the cycles make sense. It’s not a reasonable trade for society.” He also wants to require patent holders to be actually using the patent.
What else does Sergey do? He’s on the board, he spent a lot of time on the security stuff, but that’s pretty much it. He sees Larry a few times a week at central meetings, and he does participate in “broader company issues” during those meetings, so it’s not like he’s completely removed from the mix.
Kara gets to the point: this is all cool, and all, but why is Google really doing this? “It’s important to work on something you really enjoy and feel passionate about. And I think it’s important for companies in general to try and do new things. That’s how new things happen.”
The fourth Google X project we’re going to mention today is the glucose measuring contact lens. “It’s one of the ones I’m most excited about and the one that I had the least to do with.”
Kara asks if Google needs Uber for this to really work. “To some of these business questions, how will the service be operated, are things that will sort out when it’s closer to being widely deployed. At first we’ll operate a service ourselves, but longer term, it’s not clear.”
The goal for the car is for it to be “significantly safer than a human driver,” Sergey says before it goes big. Google has already worked with federal regulators on these issues, he notes.
Does Google want to be a car company? “We expect we’ll work with partners in the future,” Sergey says, noting that Google’s Nexus hardware is actually made by partners, not the company. “It’s still early, we’re still doing lots of development.” Broad availability “is still a long way away;” last year Sergey thought it was five years away “and I hope that’s still true.”
Walt points out what has always made me a bit skeptical about self-driving cars: do people really want to rely on a service and give up some autonomy to a computer? Sergey quickly points out that Google’s not exactly calling for the end of private vehicle ownership, but there are a ton of safety features involved that people might appreciate.
Individual owned and operated cars are “a tax on the community,” Sergey says, noting that most of the time, cars are parked, and “the land area we dedicate to parking….if you look out here (at the Terranea) there’s lot of space dedicated to parking.” A ton of city driving, in addition, is done by people actually looking for parking, he says.
The car was built with standard car parts but Google modified a few things for its needs, Sergey says. The initial run is going to involve 100-200 prototypes.
Sergey is running down a few features of the new car, which Google briefed Recode on here: http://recode.net/2014/05/27/googles-new-self-driving-car-ditches-the-steering-wheel/
He’s basically describing an Uber for self-driving cars, which probably has something to do with investment Google Ventures made in Uber. Someone looking for a ride could summon a car from an app or ideally hail one, but that research is in very, very early stages, he cautions.
Why is Google doing this? For one thing, public transportation, outside of big cities, is pretty terrible in the U.S., and it means that lots of people have trouble getting around as easily as they could
Google is apparently announcing a prototype self-driving car. The early types were modified Priuses, but the new prototype shown off in the video has no obvious steering wheel, brakes, or other controls.
We’re being treated to a Kara video looking at another Google X project, the self-driving car.
Is Glass going to be a commercial product this year? “Plus or minus,” Sergey says, explaining that Google hopes to make it a commercial product by the end of the year but isn’t sure it can pull that off. Of course, if anybody can order Glass it’s kind of a commercial product, but it’s still labeled a a beta I believe.
Intimate computing is about getting the computer out of the way as fast as possible so you can go about your life, Sergey says. “It’s very much about getting the benefits of technology, the information you want when you want it, but without crowding your world with more management. The phone has come a really long way but there is a barrier.”
Where are you going with this? Sergey says that computing has over time gotten more intimate, and Glass is just an expression of that trend. Speaking of intimate, after dropping his hotel key, Sergey jokes to Walt, “That’s for later. I promise I won’t wear the Glass.”
Glass is probably the project we know the most about, and Brin doesn’t really have much new to say about it. He’s demoing the sunglasses version, to Walt and Kara’s mild discomfort.
One of the known Google X projects is Project Loon. Google’s balloons have gone three times around the world and Brin thinks there’s a chance they’ve made it a fourth way around the world by now. Google Glass is another project, obviously: Brin of course brought his Glass, but he says he mostly wears it outdoors.
So what do you do these days, Sergey? “I am not the CEO, and very much by choice.” He’s been working at Google X for a little over three years now, and “I really really love it.” It’s pure research “at a reasonable scale,” there are only 8 projects currently going on at Google X. “Most of the work we’ve done hasn’t yet come out.”
What are Sergey’s personal views on privacy? “I think that privacy is the expectation,” he says, that there are things people have a right to keep private. Is privacy dead, like Sun’s Scott McNealy used to argue? Yes and no, Sergey seems to say, noting that obviously people want things to stay private “The Snowden slides were meant to stay private” but the internet has a way of turning things out.
“You don’t think there is the possibility of a Snowden whistleblower” inside Google, Walt asks? Google has made mistakes, for sure, Sergey agrees, specifically bringing up the Wi-Fi Street View debacle, but says that if you knew how Google approached privacy in its internal meetings, you’d feel better about it.
Google has a lot of data too, Walt points out. Sergey agrees, but says it’s a little different because Google doesn’t necessarily “know” you the way a spy might know you. This is the party line, which doesn’t acknowledge that when you put together all of what search engines know about you, even if separated from your actual name, you can easily figure out who User A and User B is.
Has Google done enough to prevent this from happening? “There’s always more you can do,” Brin notes, but says Google has a ton of people working on security. “I think these policies should be revisited.”
Brin has a unique perspective on surveillance and censorship, having left the Soviet Union as a child to grow up in the U.S. “It came as a shock,” he says, saying that Google had no clue this was happening. Google had been working on security for a while because “we were up against nation-states. But we weren’t thinking about the U.S.”
Walt shifts into Sergey’s stance on China. Sergey basically forced Google to get out of China after Chinese hackers stole source code from the company, and was hesitant about working with a country that censors so much. But now that the U.S. has been shown to be up to similar tricks, what does he think? “The Snowden relevations were a disappointment,” he says, in a modest understatement.
People associate a lot of things with Google, like fear about data collection and the types of conduct online that Gwyneth was just talking about, Sergey says, but that’s not always fair.
Google is certainly a big company now, a company that freaks some people out and that has collected a lot of data. How do you think about Google internally? Kara asks. “I’m sure the internal view and the external view are very different,” he says, noting that Googlers think of themselves as David going against Goliath but a lot of other folks think the opposite. “I think the truth is in between.”
In some ways, nothing has changed, Sergey says. Google is still about providing web search. The company is obviously making a lot of other bets, but that’s still what pays the bills.
The last time Sergey visited Walt and Kara on stage, they were mostly talking about search. “How is Google a different company from the company it was at that point?” Walt asks.
Sergey is not wearing Google Glass. Would have lost money on that bet. He also skipped the Vibram shoes, which was a good call.
Well, that’s all for Gwyneth. Everybody be a better person now.
She’s definitely coming off as authentic. Still, there’s something weird to me about celebrities complaining about things people are writing about them on the internet.
My Gwyneth pictures are terrible, I’m sorry. They turned the lights way down. She’s talking about how the internet’s surfeit of opinions is a way to build character, because if you can face up to assholes on the internet, you’ll eventually be drawn to authenticity.
Gwyneth is still talking about judgement and the internet.
I honestly have no idea what we’re talking about. Celebrity, and the internet, and Goop.com, and experiences, and stuff. Apparently being a celebrity is harder than we realize in the modern era because the internet is judgey. She does get in a good line about Facebook, noting that it’s kind of amazing that such a large company was founded on the back of rating college women’s looks.
“I didn’t expect I would be in the middle of their sandwich,” she says, referring to Satya and Sergey Brin, who is up next. Um, ok….
Gwyenth is tall.
That’s it for Satya. And heeeeeeerrreeeeee’s Gwyenth!
So what do you want your CEO tenure to be about? “Am I learning and setting higher standards on a continuous basis? If Microsoft is in a better place, and throughout that journey I have learned, then that’s what I want.”
Next question: Azure. How do you keep that going? (Scott Guthrie, who now runs Azure for Microsoft with Satya’s promotion, will be speaking at our Structure conference.) We built Azure for ourselves,” Satya says, pointing how much capacity Microsoft had to add when Titanfall came out. He says they have to do better convincing startups to be on Azure (they love AWS for the most part). He also notes that around 15 percent of Azure is running Linux.
He does get one good tongue-in-cheek line in. “Anything that’s not successful is promising.”
Believe it or not, Satya declines to name the things he’s currently thinking are subscale. “You gotta have patience, and the right amount of impatience. If you get that wrong, you’ll start exiting everything, and you’ll have no life.”
Next question: if you’re here next year, what won’t you be doing? “One thing I don’t want to do is muddle along on things. If there are things we are doing that are subscale, we won’t do it.”
“What Zuckerberg did there was effectively buy some hardware with some software capability in looking for the next computing platform. I think there are cheaper ways to get there than spending $2 billion.”
“Zuck was asking me about Xbox, and I was wondering why he was asking me so much about Xbox, and now we know.”
Second question: does Microsoft need a virtual reality strategy? In other news, the world has really changed.
Microsoft makes multiple billions of dollars from ads, Satya says, so it’s not like the company isn’t taking ads seriously. “it’s a balanced monetization model” he says, saying the same thing about retail. What does Microsoft want to do with retail? “It’s a great showcase for our consumer products,” and it also helps show off other PC companies’ products. “I’m not in the retail business. It’s a means to an end.”
First question is around two businesses Microsoft is trying to build: advertising, and retail.
One of Satya’s sons is a quadriplegic, and one of his daughters has been working with touchscreen PC technology to help him interact with the world. That’s a unique perspective for a tech CEO to have, to keenly understand the frustrations of people who aren’t able to participate as much in the technology revolution.
“From the dusty cricket pitches of the Deccen Plateau to here has been quite a journey,” he reflects. Satya’s dad was an economist and his mother was a Sanskrit researcher, which means they had some interesting dinner-table conversations. Satya even cracks an L1-cache joke. It’s been a while since I’ve heard a cache joke.
We’re moving into the softer portion of the interview: Kara asks Satya to talk about growing up in India and his family.
Do you have to buy something big, Kara wonders? “I think we have to build something big. If along the way we have to buy things, that’s fine, but we have to build it. It’s time for us to build the next big thing.”
Walt asks the same question about Apple, and Satya says “Apple has led the way with the strength of vertical integration,” also singling Samsung as a company that has gotten pretty good at that.
What’s Google’s biggest strength and weakness, Walt finally puts a point on it. Again, Satya dodges, “I don’t think about it that way.” Not at all surprising that he’s taking the high road, of course, but it’s always a little disappointing.
Data is the currency of this new world, and the monetization models around that differ. “It’s not just technology competition, it’s business models…” Google’s monetization model is ad-led, for instance. “There will be a mix of these business models.”
So far Satya is refusing to take the bait and address a competitor’s strengths and weaknesses directly.
“We live in a world where users will have choice between us and our competition.” Satya has spent time with Larry, Tim (Cook?), Bezos. Microsoft is doing backfill search for Siri and Kindle, for an example.
Now it’s time to talk about competitors. The first one? Google. Satya starts off modestly, which Kara and Walt immediately recognize as a departure from the Gates/Ballmer years. Those guys really didn’t like Google.
“In the next two years, this dream since 1949 until now, probably is when we can have this speech recognition and machine recognition (thing),” Satya says. Walt asks for product pricing and positioning details, but Satya jokes, “I just did the demo, I’ll figure it out.”
He hints at some sort of $20,000-ish telepresence screen coming relatively soon from Microsoft. Hmm…
This will show up on all devices, he promises. But the acoustic modeling on this is a hard problem that Microsoft wants to get right, he says, also implying that it might work better on Microsoft devices because it will be able to design microphones with this in mind.
He won’t commit to a number of languages, which is of course the tricky part — replicating this capability across a number of very different languages — but “it’s like search. It’s a thing we’ll get started.” 40 languages are being worked on but it probably won’t ship with support for all those, he says.
Is this ever going to be a real product? “That is the trick here,” Satya acknowledges. Microsoft Research has produced a lot of interesting things over the years but they haven’t all made it into the world. This product, however, will ship by the end of this year, he says.
There was a slightly funny translation there about a visiting a significant other, but all in all it was pretty good. Walt finds a German speaker in the audience who said she understood it, but that it was merely “nice,” which sounded like polite for “I’d laugh at a person who spoke like that to me.”
The demo involves a German colleague of the Microsoft demonstrator (whose name I did not catch, sorry) calling via Skype into the conference room. Skype is translating English into German, and German back into English, so the two can have a conversation in their native tongues. My German ain’t so great so I can’t vouch for that version, but the English sounds pretty good.
This is a demo of “Skype Translate,” which should not be confused as an actual product name, Satya jokes.
Ah, here we go: Paramount used Bing’s translation engine for the new Star Trek movie and its Klingon translation abilities. Satya is apparently going to “demo” something for us, which is otherwise known as a commercial.
We’re talking about Star Trek now for some reason.
At the end of the day, Satya says “at the end of the day” too much.
“From now on you’ll see us do things on other platforms,” Satya says. He believes the data gained from the learning on the first platform is essential.
Walt wants to know what took so long to get Office on IPad, and why isn’t it on the Windows touch interface. Satya dodges, saying that the company’s goal is to get its software on all devices. In developing a touch-first Office experience, they wanted to get it right for the device where it would see the most usage: the iPad, he says.
Remember, Satya has been around the block with Gates. In 1996 he did his first review with Gates, and it was rough. “Being challenged like that, I think of Bill’s presence, push, high standards, is beneficial.”
So, what about Bill again? Founders are unique, Satya says; they can “galvanize” companies in a way others can’t. Gates is very involved and he has an agenda, Satya says. Do you have to agree with Gates as CEO, Walt and Kara wonder?
He has no intention of doing anything different with Xbox today, but Xbox is changing. “The thing that we learned the most with Xbox was the Xbox Live experience.” Satya, as anyone who has ever attended one of our Structure conferences (coming up in June) is a cloud guy.
“In order to be in the hunt for (next generation) experiences, you have to build hardware. You have to be all-in to create demand for these experiences,” he says.
“We are a software company at the end of the day.” However, building platforms and apps is nice but it’s not enough, Microsoft realized according to Satya.
Satya laughingly declines to state his position on the Nokia deal prior to becoming CEO. He was reportedly not a big fan.
“The PC ecosystem needs new innovation,” Satya says, “and that will come from us.” Why can’t Dell do that? “They can, I don’t think of it as zero-sum. It’s not the competition in our ecosystem that’s an issue.”
So what’s the plan for Nokia? “For me, hardware is a means to an end and not an end itself,” he says. “I definitely don’t want to compete with our own OEMs,” he says, which Walt immediately jumps on: “how do you think you’re not competing with them?”
“The core value of Bing is a lot more than Bing.com,” Satya answers. The combined Bing/Yahoo search share is comparable to Apple’s iPhone share, he says, and wold you consider that a success? That is a hell of an answer.
So how about search? Kara wonders. Can you possibly get close to Google?
Second: “Instead of searching for information, how does information find you?” Satya is getting into topics of data analysis, machine learning, and all kinds of Derrick Harris stuff to talk about how personalized video streaming could become a better thing.
First up: “Instead of thinking about an app and a device, how do we build platforms that are about people and not devices?”
What’s the next big thing? “All of us walk into the future with our backs to it. We have to reason what’s happening today and look forward. To me, it’s four things.
Microsoft is going to have 130,000 people with the Nokia deal, Walt observes. How can a company that size move quickly? “Size is an advantage and a disadvantage,” Satya says. “It’s not about sitting around trying to coordinate the work of 130,000 people. We’re not trying to go into some Soviet system or something.”
People have to learn to say “yes” to others at Microsoft, Satya says, perhaps referencing the company’s notoriously fractious internal corporate culture during the Gates/Ballmer years.
So what about Gates, Kara asks? “We definitely are going to have more people come to Microsoft,” he says, referring to recruiting efforts and the role Gates can play in that sense. “At the end of the day, though, it’s about the renewal of the place.”
“It’s not going to be possible for us to play by the rules as they are defined today,” Satya says, talking about how Microsoft can compete in mobile today.
“I really wish we had taken the bet the whole way,” Satya says, referring to what he wished MIcrosoft would have done with the original Tablet PC, which was way ahead of its time in 2001 or so and was plagued by poor hardware and poor software. He thinks Microsoft should have continued to develop the pen-and-ink screen input style rather than having to start over again with the Surface tablet.
“Suppose you asked Jobs in ’99 what he was going to do about his 3 percent (Mac/PC) market share,” Satya says, in response to a question about what Microsoft can do about its anemic mobile market share.
Remember that for years Microsoft refused to acknowledge the famous dictum of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs that the mobile era was the “post-PC era.” Microsoft wanted to call it “PC-plus.” That’s a shift.
“We’re at the beginning of what I call the post-post-PC era,” Satya says. “What?” Kara says.
So how did you miss these things in mobile? Kara asks: after all, Satya has been with Microsoft for 20+ years. He says it’s about patience, immediately switching gears to talk about things Microsoft has done well over the last decade, like Xbox.
“It stems from some core that you have. It’s about two things: building platforms, and building software for productivity. Those are two things I believe we are capable of doing.”
So what about that worldview, Walt wonders, asking Satya about missteps Microsoft made waltzing into the mobile era. “Life without challenges is not worth living,” Satya said. “What if Microsoft disappeared? What is it that we would have left?”
“Nobody joins (Microsoft) and says they’re going to be CEO in 22 years,” Satya says. For him, it’s not about whether he’s wanted the job, he’s what he would do when he got to that point. “It’s about having a worldview.”
Satya’s here. “Why did you want to be CEO of Microsoft?” Kara asks him, right off the bat? “So, you want to get right to the point..” he jokes.
Please forgive the weak iPhone pics, I opted to get 5 percent more juice into my battery and had to settle for a seat a few rows back. I stand by that decision.
Walt and Kara are out, and here we go.
Please leave your consciously uncoupling jokes in the comments below and I’ll get to as many as I can.
We’re waiting for everybody to file in. The event is scheduled to start at 5pm PT, but I’m betting the over on that line and you would be smart to do so as well. Tonight’s guests? Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is up first, Google co-founder Sergey Brin closes out the night, and in between, for some odd reason, is Gwyneth Paltrow.
Hey everybody! It’s a sort-of-different-but-not-completely scene at the Terranea in Ranchos Palos Verdes this year, as the Recode folks put on their first Code Conference free from the clutches of Rupert Murdoch.