Google Now And The Priorities At Google

Mark Bergen (@mhbergen) wrote an interesting story on Google on how most of the original Google Now team has left the company, mainly due to a lack of prioritisation.

Although we need further reports to confirm this and to get a picture of what the consequences may be, I found this very interesting because it aligns with some predictions I had made previously.

  1. Predicting Android’s Change Of Direction: Thoughts from Andy Rubin’s Demotion (Apr. 2013, in Japanese)
  2. Who Is To Blame For Samsung’s Bad Fortune? (Nov. 2014)
  3. Android No Longer Competes With iOS (May. 2015)

Mark Bergen’s article in essence says;
1. Google Now was born within Android.
2. Larry Page heavily prioritised it, but then became too busy with moonshots.
3. Sundar Pichai de-prioritised Google Now as an independent intelligent assistant, and moved it from Android to Search.

My argument was that whereas Andy Rubin wanted Android to be the best mobile operating system in and of itself, Larry Page (and consequently Sundar Pichai) thought of it as a gateway to their Search cash cow. Hence priorities are determined based on potential contribution to the Search business, and not on the merits of Android itself. It seems to match Mark Bergen’s discussion, with the exception of heavy support from Larry Page, which I didn’t expect because of how he removed Andy Rubin.

At this point, it is difficult to say whether Google Now should be a priority for Google or not. I suspect that Android is more focused on emerging countries than developed ones, and if so, then de-prioritising Now makes sense. It’s also unclear whether Google Now will really provide good advertising opportunities. Despite theoretically being attractive for ads, I do not know of any mechanism provided by Google for purchasing ad space, and it is possible that it isn’t really very good. Sundar Pichai may be fully aware of the consequences of what he is doing, and that he is convinced that it is better for Google long-term. Google’s multiple projects were always in conflict in one way or another, and it’s possible that Sundar is simply clearing the mess up.

What I do worry about is the fate of Android OEMs. Android, if it is to compete with iOS at all, needs to have features that are unique to it. Tight integration of Google Now seemed to be a great opportunity. Without it, Android will struggle even more in the high-end. As a result, profits for Android OEMs will get even worse.

  • Kenny

    I think you’re getting it wrong in trying to justify your old age flaws anecdote on Google Now.

    Contrary to the point of your article and even the one from recode, moving Google Now from Android and integrated it in search not only makes more sense because of the nature of the product, but will allow the product to gain more resources feature
    integration and priorities from the search team, that would never be the case, had
    it remain native to Android OS.

    You seem to be blind to the level of investment, integration and functionality that Google Now has received over the last two years which make me question whether you actually use the product that you’re love to write about.

    • I appreciate that your point of view differs from both mine and the re/code article.

      However, my approach is to create hypotheses which sufficiently explain currently available reports and facts. In the case of the re/code article, our hypothesis has to explain the departure of Google Now engineers. I don’t think that your viewpoint can do that.

      • Kenny

        How many Google Now engineers have departed and where have they gone to, for you to suggests that the product was indeed deprioritized?

        • The Re/code article does not provide specific numbers, but it does mention that only one person from the original team remains. If you read carefully, it seems that there must have been at least five to ten founding members. Furthermore, Re/code has interviewed these people.

          Unless Re/code totally screwed up on this report, it is clear to me that Google Now was de-prioritised, or at the very least, steered towards a direction that was in severe conflict with the vision that it used to have.

          Just to add, although Google Now is available on many devices, I am not aware of any reports that tell us how popular it is, how many people actively use it, and whether customers consider it to be an important feature or not. The Re/code article mentions that Google Now has more than a hundred million monthly active users (from multiple sources), Compare this to comments from Sundar Pichai that there are over 1 billion active Android users who send 20 billion text messages and 93 million selfies each day. Usage of Google Now is not very encouraging short term, in comparison. If Sundar Pichai actually did de-prioritised Google Now, I would understand his reasoning.

          http://www.engadget.com/2014/06/25/google-io-2014-by-the-numbers/

          I tend to ignore anecdotes because they tend to be very unreliable and I know that I myself am not representative of the majority of users. I typically try to find data, but in the case of Google Now or anything Google for that matter, there is very little. Therefore, I try to understand long term trends, visions, priorities, conflicts and organisational issues inside that company because it allows us to combine the little information that we have. On the other hand, for Apple and Microsoft, they disclose much more information so I don’t have to go too much into these things.

          • Kenny

            You talking as if all the investments, and major new feature update that Google Now has had during the last two years did not exist.

            Do you know that it is not unusual for engineers to leave or switch to different project in a company when their product has been integrated into other one that is much more important.

            You don’t integrate a succesful feature into the most important product of your company to deprioritized it, often the opposite is true.

            If you want to know wherther Google Now is important or not, look no further than the fact that Apple and Microsoft has copied all its functionality into their own platform as evidence of its relevancy and usefulness.

          • First, regarding whether we can take the fact that Apple and Microsoft copying Google Now as proof of its importance. The problem here is that Google and Apple, Microsoft have very different business models and hence different priorities. What is a priority for Apple and Microsoft is not automatically a priority for Google, and this is actually the point that I’m trying to make. When Andy Rubin was in charge, I think his priorities were much more similar to Apple’s. However, under Sundar Pichai, I think his priorities are less about the product and more about advertising.

            As for evaluating the investments in Google Now and major new features of Google Now, that’s difficult and too subjective for my liking.

            You can certainly make arguments that engineers leaving a company is not necessarily a negative sign. That’s exactly why I try to understand the re/code article in the context of trends that I have been observing inside Google for years.

          • Kenny

            if you were to deprioritized a successful feature, will you integrate it on top of your most important product?

          • I don’t see any reason why that would be a problem. In fact, I think it is a rather common strategic manoeuvre. If you apply the BCG-matrix framework, you are essentially switching Google Now away from a “Star” and trying to make it into a “Cash Cow” because you see less potential for the product in the future.

            https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Growth–share_matrix