Today’s interview in Wired is getting a lot of attention for one quip from Larry Page on Apple’s legal battle against Android and device makers selling Android-bsed devices: “How well is that working?”. While it’s a clever quip, and certainly got tongues wagging, the real crux of the Wired article is everything else Larry Page had to say.
Let’s get the Android quote done and out of the way first:
Wired: Steve Jobs felt competitive enough to claim that he was willing to “go to thermonuclear war” on Android.
Page: How well is that working?
Wired: Do you think that Android’s huge lead in market share is decisive?
Page: Android has been very successful, and we’re very excited about it.
Wired: Did you envision that kind of success when you bought Andy Rubin’s small company in 2005?
Page: We have a good ability to see what’s possible and not be impeded by the status quo. At the time we bought Android, it was pretty obvious that the existing mobile operating systems were terrible. You couldn’t write software for them. Compare that to what we have now. So I don’t think that betting on Android was that big a stretch. You just had to have the conviction to make a long-term investment and to believe that things could be a lot better.
In context, that exchange is a minor part of the entire interview. What far more interesting are all the other things Page has to say about Google, innovation, risk, and invention.
On how to motivate employees to make the next great thing…not by being better than someone else by x, y, or z amount, but by “just” finding a new and better way:
That’s why Page expects his employees to create products and services that are 10 times better than the competition. That means he isn’t satisfied with discovering a couple of hidden efficiencies or tweaking code to achieve modest gains. Thousand-percent improvement requires rethinking problems entirely, exploring the edges of what’s technically possible, and having a lot more fun in the process.
“If you read the media coverage of our company, or of the technology industry in general, it’s always about the competition. The stories are written as if they are covering a sporting event,” Page added. “But it’s hard to find actual examples of really amazing things that happened solely due to competition. How exciting is it to come to work if the best you can do is trounce some other company that does roughly the same thing? That’s why most companies decay slowly over time. They tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes.”
One government scrutiny and regulation:
“That’s just the way I’m wired,” he added. “But I do think the Internet’s under much greater attack than it has been in the past. Governments are now afraid of the Internet because of the Middle East stuff, and so they’re a little more willing to listen to what I see as a lot of commercial interests that just want to make money by restricting people’s freedoms.”
Page noted, however, that regulators have also seen much user reaction, such as the outpouring against SOPA.
“I think that governments fight users’ freedoms at their own peril,” Page said.
Wired: Now you have a separate division called Google X, dedicated to moon-shot projects like self-driving cars. Why did you decide you needed to set up an entire department for this?
Page: I think we need to be doing breakthrough, non-incremental things across our whole business. But right now Google X does things that can be done more independently.
You know, we always have these debates: We have all this money, we have all these people, why aren’t we doing more stuff? You may say that Apple only does a very, very small number of things, and that’s working pretty well for them. But I find that unsatisfying. I feel like there are all these opportunities in the world to use technology to make people’s lives better. At Google we’re attacking maybe 0.1 percent of that space. And all the tech companies combined are only at like 1 percent. That means there’s 99 percent virgin territory. Investors always worry, “Oh, you guys are going to spend too much money on these crazy things.” But those are now the things they’re most excited about—YouTube, Chrome, Android. If you’re not doing some things that are crazy, then you’re doing the wrong things.
On commercializing inventions, XEROX PARC and Nicolai Tesla:
Wired: On the other hand, as the canard goes, the pioneers take the most arrows. Look at the experience of Xerox PARC, where fantastic innovations didn’t seem to help the corporation itself.
Page: PARC had a tremendous research organization and they invented many of the tools of modern computing. But they weren’t focused on commercialization. You need both. Take one company I admire, Tesla. They’ve not only made a really innovative car, but they’re probably spending 99 percent of their effort figuring out how to actually get it out to people. When I was growing up, I wanted to be an inventor. Then I realized that there’s a lot of sad stories about inventors like Nikola Tesla, amazing people who didn’t have much impact, because they never turned their inventions into businesses.
Together these weave a picture of a culture at Google of risk and invention. The “try, fail, try again” mentality that eventually yields something great—or sometimes doesn’t. Yep we all thought Google was nuts for launching Gmail, but we loved it right away. I think the true genius of Google will probably be the fact that many of their greatest inventions (self-driving cars, Google Glass), might not wind up being “Google products”, but products made and refined by others. I think Google will still make money from those inventions, but they might not be the best at making things like that.
Which is fine. We need the dreamers and crazy idea people working (and supported) somewhere. Personally I think the most innovative things we’ll see in the next few years will probably come from Apple and Google (maybe Amazon), but I think the best applications of those innovations might come from companies like Samsung and HTC. Take a great kernel of an idea, license it, and then mass produce something awesome.
That’s a scenario where I think we all win in the end.