Objective No. 3: Become the Windows of stuff.
Microsoft was king when the PC was king. Google does not want to be left holding the bag when Web search is no longer what it was. What Microsoft failed to do was A) extend its Windows platform beyond the desktop, and B) convince people and other companies to make Microsoft a middleman for online activity and commerce. (Microsoft Passport and HailStorm were two failed attempts to do this.) Microsoft didn’t succeed because Microsoft did not have any control over that brand-new platform of the Web.
Back then, the Internet was the Wild West, and so new companies built their own platforms there. Once a new space is colonized by platforms, it is far more difficult to create a behemoth like Facebook or Amazon. If Facebook started off as an Android app rather than as a website in the free wilderness of the desktop Internet, having to use Google’s advertising platform instead of building its own, do you think Facebook would have become the lucrative monster platform it is today? No, I don’t think so either. Google—and Apple, and Facebook—wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
So by building out software infrastructure, hardware infrastructure, and network infrastructure, Google’s doing what Microsoft didn’t do when it had huge cash reserves in the late ’90s and early 2000s. As long as the desktop and Windows were central to computers, Microsoft profited. Having realized long ago that Web search will not be around forever, Google is trying to pull Microsoft’s trick of being the platform everyone uses, while Apple remains a boutique provider. Google is going about it on three levels.
First, the existing Web and software platforms. Android, Chrome, Gmail, YouTube, and DoubleClick—these you know. The operating systems (e.g., Android) are most important because they have the potential to be to everything what Windows was to PCs.
Second, the hardware platforms. Google Glass isn’t up to much at I/O, the Chromebook remains rather underwhelming, and Google’s tablet offerings are nice but hardly revolutionary. But Google is now making a much stronger push into hardware, tightening the Android hardware story with Android Silver, developing smart watches, doing something with those intelligent thermostats from Nest, and probably lots of other secret things. Google doesn’t need to build every device you own. It just needs to get Android on enough of those devices—all communicating with one another and all linked to your Google account—so that the network effect induces other hardware companies to build their smart hardware on top of Google platforms. Arguably, it doesn’t matter if Google Glass itself fails as a product, as long as other companies start building Glass-like devices—with Android.
Finally, network platforms. Ars Technica has written about Google’s new Access and Energy division, which in addition to the Google Fiber networks includes energy initiatives and those pesky crashing Internet balloons. None of these other platforms are good for anything if people don’t have the network infrastructure to get to them, and since telecoms are dinosaurs and the U.S. government won’t even improve highways, much less Internet infrastructure, Google isn’t keen on waiting around. Which brings us to an important postscript.
P.S.: Crush telecoms.
Nothing annoys platform companies like having to go through other platforms. If you think you’re mad at telecoms and cable companies, that hate is a mere fraction of what Google execs feel toward them. Between Netflix paying off Comcast and Verizon to get a faster video network pipe, broadband providers’ archaic infrastructure and poor customer service, and dealing with near-weekly idiocies like Verizon’s Chromebook data plan screw-up, you can be sure that Google sees Verizon, Comcast, and the rest as gazelles in desperate need of euthanasia. Google would love to go all Hachette on Time Warner’s butt, and Google’s huge move into fiber networks, satellites, wind turbines, and balloons is intended to contribute to the gazelle-ification of a bunch of telecoms no one likes. You can’t build a platform on top of ancient deadwood. Having built one platform beachhead in advertising and planning out several more platforms in new markets, there is one bit of cleanup that remains for the master plan to be complete: Grind the old platforms—the ones leeching off your success—into dust.