Let's review what’s been happening at Alphabet in the past months. We’ve been seeing a lot of bad news come out lately, and I figured it’s time to try to make sense of it all — or at least to put all of the bad news in one place. The very latest is that the new head of hardware at Google, Rick Osterloh, has decided to kill the Project Ara modular smartphone project. It occurs to me that it’s just the latest in a string of missteps and corrections for both Alphabet and Google.
You can look at all this as a company flailing, or you can look at it as a sign of a company that’s cleaning house and locking things down without being willing to publicly say so.
There are reasons to see it both ways.
If you want to see this as just the external signs of a company that’s reorganizing a bit and cleaning up what had been a very, very cluttered house, you can easily cobble that story together. For example, back when former Nest boss Tony Fadell left, we examined the reasons why. According to Randy Komisar (who had served on Nest’s board), Fadell’s reputation as a hard person to work for was only part of the issue. Instead, he said, "The real story is Alphabet. This isn’t really about Tony Fadell. This isn’t really about Nest. Nest is still full of potential. This is about Google, and Google’s decision to build Alphabet."
Alphabet has been a confusing company from the jump, a mix of random product ideas from crazy moonshots to utilitarian smartphone appliances. Perhaps it’s simply time for said company to start demanding the kind of focus and fiscal responsibility that we historically haven’t seen a ton of with Google’s weirder projects.
But if you want to see it the other way, as a company that’s trying to do too many things and therefore flailing, that story is easy, too. You don’t even have to try — all you have to do is just make a list of the things that have gone wrong or been killed in the past months. Google famously kills products and projects with little notice in so-called "Spring Cleanings," and so it’s tempting to string together a narrative and assume it means something drastic is happening. It could just be that Google is gonna act like Google: trying weird things, leaving them behind when they don’t work.
But something definitely feels different this time. Look at this not-comprehensive, admittedly-not-including-the-good-stuff list. Because when you see everything that’s gone wrong for Google lately all strung together, it sure doesn’t feel like a spring cleaning.
It feels like a hot summer mess.
- Fiber: On August 25th, it was reported that there is "serious pressure" on Google Fiber to cut costs. It's having a hard time getting into cities, prompting consideration of a switch to a wireless infrastructure and a plea to Nashville to ease restrictions on the process for using utility poles.
- Nest: Amid what seemed to be no shortage of drama, Tony Fadell left Nest on June 3rd. Then, just a couple days ago, we heard that Nest's engineers have been absorbed into Google.
- Self Driving Cars: On August 6th, the public face of Google's self-driving car project, Chris Urmson, left along with two other executives. It also probably stings a little that Uber acquired an autonomous trucking company that was founded by ex-Googlers, among others.
- Alphabet's X division: Recode reported earlier this week that the "moonshot factory" under Astro Teller is "sputtering" and having difficult time getting products out the door amidst internal politics
- Boston Dynamics: You could chalk this one up as unfair, but still: way back in March, we heard that Google wanted to put the robot division up for sale. So far, no buyers!
And that’s just Alphabet. Google itself has its own easy list of issues:
- Project Ara: After a surprise "It's alive!" announcement at Google IO in May, last night we learned that the modular smartphone project has been scrapped.
- Chromebook Pixel: Google's flagship Chromebook, the Pixel 2, was unceremoniously end-of-lifed earlier this week, with no replacement announced. Presumably one will be coming soon, but there's been a dearth of rumors and leaks about it.
- The Nexus Program: We've just heard rumors that Google will hold an event on October 4th to announce several new products, including new Nexus phones that might be branded "Pixel." Previously, "Pixel" was reserved for hardware that Google itself makes, but so far as we know HTC is the manufacturer of these to-be-announced phones. Seems confusing!
- Allo: We’re at the end of summer as reasonable people define it and Google’s new chat app hasn’t shipped as promised. We haven’t run out the clock on Google’s other announcements from its IO conference last May, but you have to admit that it’s a lot of promises for the fall.
Phew! There are surely more items I forgot, but I think that the list provides plenty of fodder for those two stories.
The good news, at least for the Google division, is that it’s going to have a really good chance to clear its strategy up at that rumored October event. We’ve heard various rumors of new phones, watches, a smart home speaker, and maybe a new Chromebook. If you’re going to unload that much gear, you better have a coherent story to tell about all of it.
As for the Alphabet side of things, well, your guess is as good as mine.