Tech

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

In a 1990s science fiction film based on Carl Sagan's "Contact," one line captures the essence of Google -- a company that could have sprung from Sagan's imagination. Jodie Foster plays a scientist trying to reach extraterrestrials, but her project seems dead after a mysterious transport contraption is destroyed. A kooky billionaire surprises her with a backup he had constructed in secret.

"Why build one when you can have two at twice the price?" he explains.

Instead of trying to make one perfect thing, as Apple does, Google chooses to build at least two, often imperfect, versions of all the things.

It's tech strategy by throwing spaghetti at the wall. It makes for some terrible products that Google eventually abandons, or products that completely clash with others it makes. And, weirdly, it works. 

Hey, Big Spender
Google's parent company is among the world's biggest spenders on research and development as it tries to find the next big thing in technology
Source: Bloomberg
Note: This is a ranking of R&D spending by companies in the Russell 1000 index.

At Google's annual developer event on Wednesday, the company showed off an instant-messaging app and a digital "assistant," similar to Apple's Siri. Google wants to put its digital helper to work in all sorts of digital and physical places, including a new voice-activated home speaker intended to help people turn on the lights in a child's room, plan a commute around a traffic jam and cue music in the kitchen. 

Google didn't mention that it already has a Siri-like digital assistant called Google Now. The company didn't say that it will soon have four messaging-type apps (Messenger, HangoutsGoogle Spaces and the newly introduced Allo.)

This overlap has plenty of company in Google's walls. The company famously also has two computer operating systems, Chrome and Android. The latter is mostly for phones and the former mostly for laptops, but not always. Google until recently had two services to store and organize digital photos, Photos and Picasa. Google has made several attempts at email software, including Gmail, the now dead Google Wave and the still alive Inbox. Google by rough count has made at least half a dozen attempts at devices or software to meld streaming Web video and traditional TV.

I still remember the anxiety I felt the first time I tried one of the first Google TV controllers in 2010. There. Were. So. Many. Buttons. And it was slow. It was, in a word, awful. Progress for Google didn't happen in a straight line, but it's possible to see the DNA of Google TV in Google's current $35 TV plug-in called Chromecast, which is among the best and cheapest ways to watch Web video on a TV set. In keeping with the "two is better than one" philosophy, Google also has software, called Android TV, that is baked into TV sets and has similar functions as Chromecast.

We haven't yet arrived at a seamless integration of TV and the Web, but Google's spaghetti-throwing in TV moved the company forward, and it surely helped Roku, Apple, Amazon and others that pursued the same TV-Web marriage. Google Glass was similar. Awful at first, then a bit better but still hopelessly flawed. And now it's being retooled for another stab at the big time. 

It's not clear why Google is this messy, two-of-everything tech company. Competing fiefs may be a reason. At Microsoft, Bill Gates actively encouraged multiple overlapping products because he thought internal competition among similar product groups made his company stronger. 

Movin' On Up
Revenue for Google parent company Alphabet is on track to triple since since 2010
Source: Bloomberg and Nomura (for estimated 2016 revenue)

That didn't seem to be the kind of company Google wanted to be. When company co-founder Larry Page took over as CEO in 2011, he declared Google would be less chaotic and more focused. "More wood behind fewer arrows," he declared. "Focus and prioritization are crucial given our amazing opportunities." Fast-forward five years, and there still seem to be so many arrows. It's easy to imagine that all the time and energy devoted to four instant-messaging services might be better put to work elsewhere. 

Then again, maybe this is just part of Google's process. So what if Google is the "So Many Buttons" company? Yes, the company winds up with plenty of flops like Google TV and Google Glass. And yes, it's unclear whether Google succeeds because of this messy approach to software development or in spite of it.

But Google's big advantage is more money, smarter people and a huge lead in technology over everyone else. Being really smart papers over many problems. It means Google can brute-force all these imperfect everythings into eventually great some of the things.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. The new assistant -- called simply "Google assistant," lower case -- seems to be a successor to Google Now.

  2. There were two tries at a Web-plus-TV idea called Google TV. Then Google announced a TV-Web connector called Nexus Q, which was never released. Google also showed off a nearly finished prototype of another home entertainment device three years ago, but it was never introduced. Then Google started selling Chromecast. 

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net