Google Needs to Cure its ADD Before it is Too Late


At risk of offending, Google has a cultural attention deficit disorder problem. It needs to start working to fixing it and put more effort into strategic areas, rather than simply doing a bunch of half-baked projects and leaving them on cruise control while others respond more rapidly. Microsoft and others are going to start pulling customers back in if Google doesn't get serious.

In 2013, Google had over $55 billion in total revenues and in the first three quarters of 2014 was on a pace for over $60 billion when 2014 closes. It's sitting on a pile of around $62 billion in cash and equivalents. 

So what's not to like if Google wants to dabble here and there? Plenty, if dabbling doesn't move into a serious business plan to refine products and capture market share. Google Docs, Google Fiber, plus dalliances with satellites and autonomous cars all show aspects of a reliance on muddling along rather focusing on a particular project.

Google Docs is free. There are tools to do the basics of word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation slides. It's all basic functionality that can be supplemented with add-ons to claw your way to Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint standards, and is great if you have perfect broadband—not so much if you don't. 

Free has won Google Docs a lot of users, but businesses needing more than a patchwork solution, more powerful tools and/or an established culture stuck with Microsoft.  Not in an "I love Microsoft" way, but "I need to get the task accomplished and Docs doesn't have the features" way. 

Meanwhile, Microsoft (finally) figured out if it didn't offer avenues for people to get free and discounted access to Office, there would be a much more limited and established user base for its products and services. It's why you can find more capable free versions of Office on Android and iOS, various free and low-cost programs for students, teachers and school systems to use Office, and putting Office up as a cloud service, making it both more affordable for businesses on a per-seat basis and also bringing in recurring revenue instead of the up-and-down cycle of selling new-and-improved big ticket software versions every couple of years.

While it remains to be seen how Microsoft's cloud-first/mobile-first strategy translates to converting over Google Docs users to Office 365 subscriptions, you can't really say Google won over big market share in the enterprise, either.

From a simple business perspective, Google Fiber is a clear failure. After making hundreds of cities around the country jump through hoops for the possibility of getting low-cost gigabit fiber installed, only Austin, Kansas City, and Provo are lit. You can't even really call Provo a build, since Google simply acquired the existing network from the city for a buck.

Another eight cities are "potential" Google Fiber cities, but many local telcos and cable companies are preemptively deploying gigabit fiber and/or increasing speeds.  Some argue that Google Fiber is simply a clever strategy to get telcos and cable motivated to deploy faster speeds, but it would seem to be an expensive and complicated marketing scheme by having to build out two cities and upgrade a third fiber network. If Google wants to truly be in the broadband infrastructure business, surely it could move a bit more rapidly with all the available cash it has sitting around. 

Satellites are an interesting topic. Google has put money into Ka-band broadband satellite networks (O3b), purchased a satellite company (Skybox Imaging), and was reportedly planning to build another broadband satellite network from scratch. One can understand an investment in O3b to extend broadband to underserved and unserved area, while purchasing Skybox Imaging was a data play by collecting high-resolution imaging and selling processing services and packages—and certainly Google understands the value of Big Data. But the company couldn't pull the trigger on making arrangements in purchasing spectrum and the company working on a massive satellite network for broadband; reports indicate the owners went to SpaceX because they weren't convinced Google was willing to commit enough resources to the project.

Google has poked around with self-driving cars, showing off hardware prototypes and generating headlines. Meanwhile, the larger automobile industry appears to be going its own way, adding autonomous features to existing vehicles with a roadmap to full functionality by the 2020s. Even upstart Tesla has hinted it will add more autonomy to its cars via software in the future. Google shareholder may wonder where the payoff is for this line of research, given the company hasn't built a production line and would have to compete against the likes of Ford, GM, Mercedes, and other established auto manufacturers.

While I truly do appreciate Google's enthusiasm to foster research and start up new businesses, it needs to stop with the sideshow of trying to be everywhere at once. More time, energy, and money put into a better Google Docs product might be more worthwhile than poking around in trying to one-up the auto industry or taking half-measures in satellite broadband. 

Edited by Maurice Nagle

Contributing Editor

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