Understanding Google

Out of all the tech companies that I have written about so far, Google is far and away my favorite, and one that I always have wanted to work at (at some margin, I still do).

It’s just – and this is a personal thing, may not work for everybody – cool.

The only reason I say this at the outset is to make sure that you’re aware of my biases!

Here we go:


I often ask this question in classes I teach in microeconomics, or introductory economics:

“What is Google’s business?”

The default answer is almost always “search”. At which point of time, I have a follow-up question: identify for me one person who has paid Google to run a search.

In fact, if anything, Google seems to go out of its way to keep Google search free. And if running a search is not to be paid for, it can’t be much of a business, right?

So what is Google’s business?


But suppose we say that Google is primarily an advertising company. That changes things. The U.S. search engine advertising market is $17 billion annually. Online advertising is $37 billion annually. The entire US advertising market is $150 billion. And global advertising is a $495 billion market. So even if Google completely monopolized US search engine advertising, it would just own 3.4% of the global advertising market. From this angle, Google looks like a small player in a competitive world.

What if we frame Google as a multifaceted technology company instead? This seems reasonable enough; in addition to its search engine, Google makes dozens of other software products, not to mention robotic cars, Android phones, and wearable computers. But 95% of Google’s revenue comes from search advertising; its other products generated just $2.35 billion in 2012, and its consumer tech products are a mere fraction of that.

That’s Peter Thiel, in From Zero to One. The context in which he wrote this apart, what matters is the fact that he’s absolutely right about the fact that Google earns a vast amount of its revenue from advertising, not running searches.

But what are advertisers paying money to Google for? To provide digital real estate, in which ads can be shown, and the impact of these ads can be measured better than ever before in history. And advertisers are willing to pay because Google understands its users better than anybody else. Why does Google understand its users better than anybody else?

Because we have some combination of the following as part and parcel of our daily lives

Google Maps | YouTube | GMail | Android | Chrome OS | Chrome Browser |

But here’s the thing: we don’t pay for any of these. By that logic, we aren’t Google’s customers. But advertisers are Google’s customers and that makes us Google’s… products.

 


 

So here is the kicker. Android, as well as Chrome and Chrome OS for that matter, are not “products” in the classic business sense. They have no plan to become their own “economic castles.” Rather they are very expensive and very aggressive “moats,” funded by the height and magnitude of Google’s castle. Google’s aim is defensive not offensive. They are not trying to make a profit on Android or Chrome. They want to take any layer that lives between themselves and the consumer and make it free (or even less than free). Because these layers are basically software products with no variable costs, this is a very viable defensive strategy. In essence, they are not just building a moat; Google is also scorching the earth for 250 miles around the outside of the castle to ensure no one can approach it. And best I can tell, they are doing a damn good job of it.

That was Bill Gurley, in 2011, on his own blog.

All those products that I listed above? They weren’t build to generate revenue for Google (although that may be changing now), they were built to make sure that Google continued to attract, and track, eyeballs.

That allowed Google to continue to sell advertisements, which is where it makes the bulk of its money from. And they’ve refined the signal-to-ads cycle, as Ben Thompson calls it, better than anybody else:

Google dominates every aspect of this cycle, and every announcement at IO accrued to it:

On the signal side:

  • Their mobile apps are both the best, and the most popular, and they work best with a Google+ account
  • Their browser is the best, and the most popular, and it works best with a Google+ account
  • Their maps are the best, and the most popular, and they work best with a Google+ account
  • Their video website (YouTube) is the best, and the most popular, and it works best with a Google+ account
  • Their mail service (GMail) is the best, and the most popular, and is a Google+ account

And they simply own online advertising, with the best, and most popular, search ads, 3rd-party ads, and display ads.

But for the longest time, Google was a hammer in search of a nail.

 


 

Google was by far and away the best search engine in the late 1990’s – it wasn’t even close. But – and it was a big, painful “but” – how to make money? Enter economics, Google style:

Googlenomics actually comes in two flavors: macro and micro. The macroeconomic side involves some of the company’s seemingly altruistic behavior, which often baffles observers. Why does Google give away products like its browser, its apps, and the Android operating system for mobile phones? Anything that increases Internet use ultimately enriches Google, Varian says. And since using the Web without using Google is like dining at In-N-Out without ordering a hamburger, more eyeballs on the Web lead inexorably to more ad sales for Google.

The microeconomics of Google is more complicated. Selling ads doesn’t generate only profits; it also generates torrents of data about users’ tastes and habits, data that Google then sifts and processes in order to predict future consumer behavior, find ways to improve its products, and sell more ads. This is the heart and soul of Googlenomics. It’s a system of constant self-analysis: a data-fueled feedback loop that defines not only Google’s future but the future of anyone who does business online.


And so Google has become a company that has changed how to think about business in tech: give away cool products for (nearly) free, in exchange for your information, that is then sold on to advertisers.

A useful way to think about Google is that you are Google’s product, not its customer. Think of it this way: if you aren’t paying for something, how can you possibly be a customer?

Facebook and Google both have the same model: ad-driven.

There are many, many things to unpack as a consequence of thinking about this business model, and we’ll get to all of these things in the weeks to come.

How do you interact with your computer?

“Alexa, play Hush, by Deep Purple.”

That’s my daughter, all of six years old. Leave aside for the moment the pride that I feel as a father and a fan of classic rock.

My daughter is coding.


My dad was in Telco for many years, which was what Tata Motors used to call itself  back in the day. I do not remember the exact year, but he often regales us with stories about how Tata Motors procured its first computer. Programming it was not child’s play – in fact, interacting with it required the use of punch cards.

I do not know if it was the same type of computer, but watching this video gives us a clue about how computers of this sort worked.


The guy in the video, the computer programmer in Telco and my daughter are all doing the same thing: programming.

What is programming?

Here’s Wikiversity:

Programming is the art and science of translating a set of ideas into a program – a list of instructions a computer can follow. The person writing a program is known as a programmer (also a coder).

Go back to the very first sentence in this essay, and think about what it means. My daughter is instructing a computer called Alexa to play a specific song, by a specific artist. To me, that is a list of instructions a computer can follow.

From using punch cards to using our voice and not even realizing that we’re programming: we’ve come a long, long way.


It’s one thing to be awed at how far we’ve come, it is quite another to think about the path we’ve taken to get there. When we learnt about mainframes, about Apple, about Microsoft and about laptops, we learnt about the evolution of computers, and some of the firms that helped us get there. I have not yet written about Google (we’ll get to it), but there’s another way to think about the evolution of computers: we think about how we interact with them.

Here’s an extensive excerpt from Wikipedia:

In the 1960s, Douglas Engelbart’s Augmentation of Human Intellect project at the Augmentation Research Center at SRI International in Menlo Park, California developed the oN-Line System (NLS). This computer incorporated a mouse-driven cursor and multiple windows used to work on hypertext. Engelbart had been inspired, in part, by the memex desk-based information machine suggested by Vannevar Bush in 1945.

Much of the early research was based on how young children learn. So, the design was based on the childlike primitives of eye-hand coordination, rather than use of command languages, user-defined macro procedures, or automated transformations of data as later used by adult professionals.

Engelbart’s work directly led to the advances at Xerox PARC. Several people went from SRI to Xerox PARC in the early 1970s. In 1973, Xerox PARC developed the Alto personal computer. It had a bitmapped screen, and was the first computer to demonstrate the desktop metaphor and graphical user interface (GUI). It was not a commercial product, but several thousand units were built and were heavily used at PARC, as well as other XEROX offices, and at several universities for many years. The Alto greatly influenced the design of personal computers during the late 1970s and early 1980s, notably the Three Rivers PERQ, the Apple Lisa and Macintosh, and the first Sun workstations.

The GUI was first developed at Xerox PARC by Alan Kay, Larry Tesler, Dan Ingalls, David Smith, Clarence Ellis and a number of other researchers. It used windows, icons, and menus (including the first fixed drop-down menu) to support commands such as opening files, deleting files, moving files, etc. In 1974, work began at PARC on Gypsy, the first bitmap What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) cut & paste editor. In 1975, Xerox engineers demonstrated a Graphical User Interface “including icons and the first use of pop-up menus”.[3]

In 1981 Xerox introduced a pioneering product, Star, a workstation incorporating many of PARC’s innovations. Although not commercially successful, Star greatly influenced future developments, for example at Apple, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.

If you feel like diving down this topic and learning more about it, Daring Fireball has a lot of material about Alan Kay, briefly mentioned above.

So, as the Wikipedia article mentions, we moved away from punch cards, to using hand-eye coordination to enter the WIMP era.

It took a genius to move humanity into the next phase of machine-human interaction.


The main tweet shown above is Steven Sinofsky rhapsodizing about how Steve Jobs and his firm was able to move away from the WIMP mode of thinking to using our fingers.

And from there, it didn’t take long to moving to using just our voice as a means of interacting with the computers we now have all around us.

Voice operated computing systems:

That leaves the business model, and this is perhaps Amazon’s biggest advantage of all: Google doesn’t really have one for voice, and Apple is for now paying an iPhone and Apple Watch strategy tax; should it build a Siri-device in the future it will likely include a healthy significant profit margin.

Amazon, meanwhile, doesn’t need to make a dime on Alexa, at least not directly: the vast majority of purchases are initiated at home; today that may mean creating a shopping list, but in the future it will mean ordering things for delivery, and for Prime customers the future is already here. Alexa just makes it that much easier, furthering Amazon’s goal of being the logistics provider — and tax collector — for basically everyone and everything.


Punch cards to WIMP, WIMP to fingers, and fingers to voice. As that last article makes clear, one needs to think not just of the evolution, but also about how business models have changed over time, and have caused input methods to change – but also how input methods have changed, and caused business models to change.

In other words, understanding technology is as much about understanding economics, and strategy, as it is about understanding technology itself.

In the next Tuesday essay, we’ll take a look Google in greater detail, and then about emergent business models in the tech space.

 

Tech: Links for 24th December, 2019

Beginning today through until the 31st of December, I’ll link to five pieces from each category that I enjoyed collating this year. There’s no science or overt logic to any of them: I’m just going to scroll through the posts, and replug those that I enjoyed re-reading. Hopefully, next year, I’ll get a little more scientific about it. Happy holidays!

  1. Let’s help ourselves understand Stratechery and it’s Aggregators concept.
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  2. I wish the world would get more excited about Oumuamua!
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  3. I hope to be working (from a writing papers viewpoint) on urbanization in the coming year.
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  4. I am an unabashed fan of Google, and it’s products. With some caveats, about which I hope to write in the coming year. But kudos to them for doing what they do, especially in education!
  5. Five great reads from The Ken.

Tech: Links for 12th November, 2019

I have used some of these resources partially, and none of these completely. More as a bookmark to come back to for me (and maybe for you), these are five free resources to help you learn how to code.

  1. Grasshopper by Google.
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  2. The Odin Project, fully open source.
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  3. Lectures from Harvard University on Computer Science.
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  4. edX courses on coding.
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  5. … and finally, Khan Academy on coding.

Tech: Links for 5th November, 2019

  1. “Wearable technology, wearables, fashion technology, tech togs, or fashion electronics are smart electronic devices (electronic device with micro-controllers) that can be incorporated into clothing or worn on the body as implants or accessories.”
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    Wikipedia on wearables.
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  2. Wearbles are bigger than you thought.
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    “Wearables are now bigger than iPad and will soon be bigger than the Mac. And the glasses are supposedly coming next year, and the $250 AirPods Pro just shipped.”
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  3. You’ve heard of Google Glass, presumably. But uh, one ring to rule ’em all…?
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    “Amazon is experimenting with putting Alexa everywhere, and its latest experiment might be the wildest yet: a new smart ring called the Echo Loop that puts Alexa on your finger.”
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  4. “And it goes without saying that the technology still matters: chips need to get faster (a massive Apple advantage), batteries need to improve (also an Apple specialty), and everything needs to get smaller. This, though, is the exact path taken by every piece of hardware since the advent of the industry. They are hard problems, but they are known problems, which is why smart engineers solve them. ”
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    The ever excellent Ben Thompson, writing about wearables in 2016. He was bullish then, and I suspect will be even more bullish now.
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  5. All of which, I hope, will help contextualize Google’s latest acquisition.

Etc: Links for 23rd August, 2019

  1. Google Assistant can now have you assign reminders to other people. Solve, as they say, for the equilibrium.
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  2. On the whole, a depressing read about higher education in India.
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  3. “Anyway, please join me on an annotated trip through my favorite parts of the mandatory filing.”
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    A delightful (truly!) romp through WeWork’s IPO filings.
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  4. Robotic shorts that make walking and running easier.
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  5. xkcd is a treasure. This one on conferences.

Tech: Links for 20th August, 2019

Five online resources that are free, and that help you be a better student in today’s set.

  1. An utterly beautiful way to learn statistics. That is not hyperbole.
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  2. If you are a data nerd, you will have already heard of Kaggle. If you aren’t, welcome to the club.
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  3. The magic of Wolfram Alpha. If you aren’t sure about how to start, try the “Surprise Me” link on the home page
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  4. If you are using Google Classroom, the latest update might interest you.
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  5. Try the Socratic app?

Tech: Links for 8th August, 2019

Learning without technology in the twenty-first century is, in my opinion, an immense waste of available resources. That being said, here’s a list of five specific things, all created by Google, that may help you learn better.

As always please let me know how I can add to the list.

  1. Google Classroom: whether a student or an educator, this is a technology that is immensely helpful for setting up links related to a classroom. Whether you have an institutional ID, or a plain vanilla Gmail account, you can use Google Classroom to set up an online learning environment.
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  2. Google Docs: Is useful and well known anyways, but I remain convinced that students could do a lot better with Google Docs as a collaborative note taking tool.
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  3. Google Keep: Is a great place to, well, keep stuff when doing online research. Integrates well with Google Docs as well.
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  4. The Learn Digital With Google program (it’s free!)
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  5. Google AI Education. I have come across this literally only today, so can’t vouch for it entirely – but sure seems interesting. This one in particular caught my eye.

Tech: Links for 9th July, 2019

  1. “In it, astronaut Sally Jansen has been working to come to grips with a Mars mission that went disastrously wrong, and NASA ended its crewed missions into space. But while she’s trying to move on, scientists detect an object designated 2I/2044 D1 entering our solar system, and when it begins to slow down, they realize that it’s an alien artifact. Jansen is called in to try and intercept the object and figure out what is behind it before it reaches Earth.”
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    Science Fiction is a great way to learn a lot and have a lot of fun while doing so, and for that reason, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the premise of this book. In similar vein, I recently (and finally) finished The Three Body Problem, and can heartily recommend it.
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  2. “The camera was loaded with machine vision algorithms trained by Hamm himself. They identified whether Metric was coming or going and whether he had prey in his mouth. If the answer was “yes,” the cat flap would lock for 15 minutes and Hamm would get a text. (In a nice flourish, the system also sends a donation, or “blood money” as Hamm calls it, to the National Audubon Society, which protects the birds cats love to kill.)”
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    There are many people who bandy about the word AI these days, but this very short read (and within it, a very entertaining video) helps you understand how it could by applied in myriad ways.
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  3. “LightSail 2 is more ambitious and will actually try to maneuver through space, and even boost itself into different orbits using sunlight. The new mission’s mission control website will let people around the world follow along, including the 23,331 people who contributed to the project’s Kickstarter campaign, which raised $1,241,615 for the spacecraft.”
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    A third link from the same website (either The Verge is on fire, or I am being lazy today), but the best of the lot, in my opinion. It is now possible to crowdfund a satellite launch that contains a sail – and you can now watch your investment in space as it flies above your head. What a time to be alive.
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  4. “But while Tufte’s concerns are not limited to charts, he has spent a lifetime thinking through what he called the “perennial” problem of how to represent a multidimensional world in the two dimensions of the page or screen. At the end of the day, he pulled out a first edition of Galileo Galilei to show how the great minds of the past had grappled with the same issues. He rhapsodized over Galileo’s tiny, in-line sketches of Saturn, which clearly inspired his own advocacy of “sparklines” (tiny charts embedded in text at the same size as the text), as well as some beautifully precise illustrations of sunspots.”
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    Data visualization, medical visits, Galileo and sparklines. As they say, self-recommending.
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  5. “And with 92 percent of future jobs globally requiring digital skills, there’s a focus on helping students develop skills for careers that don’t yet exist. Last year, Sweden declared coding a core subject to be taught from the first year of primary school. And there is an appetite for these skills among students, too, with 85 percent of Brazilians from 16-23 indicating that they want to work in the technology sector. ”
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    Well, there’s a thought – I refer to Sweden’s decision. One, complements, not substitutes. Two, the links are worth following in this link – this is a subject very close to my heart.

Tech: Links for 2nd July, 2019

Five articles from tech, but about something that took place about twelve years ago.

  1. “One of the most important trends in personal technology over the past few years has been the evolution of the humble cellphone into a true handheld computer, a device able to replicate many of the key functions of a laptop. But most of these “smart phones” have had lousy software, confusing user interfaces and clumsy music, video and photo playback. And their designers have struggled to balance screen size, keyboard usability and battery life.”
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    Thus began Walt Mossberg’s review of the first ever iPhone. That review is fun to read in order to understand how far smartphones have come since then, and we we took for granted then, and do now.
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  2. “With the iPhone XS and Apple Neural Engine, the input isn’t an image, it’s the data right off the sensors. It’s really kind of nuts how fast the iPhone XS camera is doing things in the midst of capturing a single image or frame of video. One method is to create an image and then apply machine learning to it. The other is to apply machine learning to create the image. One way Apple is doing this with video is by capturing additional frames between frames while shooting 30 FPS video, even shooting 4K. The whole I/O path between the sensor and the Neural Engine is so fast the iPhone XS camera system can manipulate 4K video frames like Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix.”
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    That was then, this is now – well, this is also last year. John Gruber on how far we’ve come – he reviews the iPhone XS, and reading both reviews one after the other points to how far we’ve come.
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  3. “…I’m not convinced that anyone at Google fully thought through the implication of favoring Android with their services. Rather, the Android team was fully committed to competing with iOS — as they should have been! — and human nature ensured that the rest of Google came along for the ride. Remember, given Google’s business model, winning marketshare was perfectly correlated with reaping outsized profits; it is easy to see how the thinking and culture that developed around Google’s core business failed to adjust to the zero-sum world of physical devices. And so, as that Gundotra speech exemplified, Android winning became synonymous with Google winning, when in fact Android was as much ouroboros as asset.”
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    It’s not just technology that changed then – entire ecosystems and business models had to be changed, updated, pilfered. Microsoft, obviously, but most significantly, Google.
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  4. “There’s that word I opened with: “future”. As awesome as our smartphones are, it seems unlikely that this is the end of computing. Keep in mind that one of the reasons all those pre-iPhone smartphone initiatives failed, particularly Microsoft’s, is that their creators could not imagine that there might be a device more central to our lives than the PC. Yet here we are in a world where PCs are best understood as optional smartphone accessories.I suspect we will one day view our phones the same way: incredibly useful devices that can do many tasks better than anything else, but not ones that are central for the simple reason that they will not need to be with us all of the time. After all, we will have our wearables.”
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    One risk that all of us run is to think of the future in terms of what exists now – which is one reason why 2007 was such big news for tech and then for all of us. What might a similar moment be in the near future? Earlier, you had to have a computer, and it was nice to have a smartphone. Now, you have to have a smartphone, and it is nice to have a computer. When might it be nice to have a smartphone, while you have to have a ‘wearable’?
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  5. “The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing a new “Molecular Informatics” program that uses molecules as computers. “Chemistry offers a rich set of properties that we may be able to harness for rapid, scalable information storage and processing,” Anne Fischer, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, said in a statement. “Millions of molecules exist, and each molecule has a unique three-dimensional atomic structure as well as variables such as shape, size, or even color. This richness provides a vast design space for exploring novel and multi-value ways to encode and process data beyond the 0s and 1s of current logic-based, digital architectures.” ”
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    Not just the rather unimaginable (to me, at any rate) thought of molecules as computers (did I get that right?!), but also a useful timeline of how calendars have evolved. Also note how the rate of “getting better” has gotten faster over time!