Innovates in ways that Google and Apple can’t

Innovates in ways that Google and Apple can’t
The Echo, Amazon’s voice-controlled speaker, was a big hit this holiday season. Amazon is keeping specific sales figures under wraps, but the company says it sold nine times as many Echo devices during the holidays as it did a year earlier.
It’s the latest example of Amazon pioneering a new product category and then going on to dominate it. Amazon has become the leader in the e-book market on the strength of its Kindle line of e-readers. And it dominates an important segment of the cloud computing market; Amazon Web Services is expected to generate $12 billion in revenue this year.
Next year, Amazon is hoping to start doing something similar for brick-and-mortar retailing. The company recently unveiled Amazon Go, a convenience store whose no-checkout technology could revolutionize the retail sector.
In short, Amazon has shown a remarkable ability to succeed in a wide variety of different product categories. That’s a contrast to most other high-profile tech companies that are really good in one area — Google’s dominant online services or Apple’s extraordinarily profitable hardware — but struggle when the quest for growth pushes them outside their zone of core competency.
“There’s an opportunity to do innovation in big companies,” says author and startup guru Eric Ries. “But very few big companies have done this really well. Amazon is one of them.”
Amazon has figured out how to combine the entrepreneurial culture of a small company with the financial resources of a large one. And that allows it tackle problems most other companies can’t.
Most tech companies struggle outside their comfort zones
Google co-founder Sergey Brin with an early prototype of Google Glass. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Google created or acquired a remarkable string of hit products during the 2000s, including Gmail, Google Maps, Google Docs, YouTube, Android, and Chrome. These products have a lot in common. Most are online services like Google’s original search engine. The two major exceptions — Android and Chrome — are software that help people access Google’s online services.
During the 2010s, Google has gotten more ambitious, funding a series of “moonshots” that aim to solve big technology problems far removed from the company’s traditional focus on online services. Indeed, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin felt so strongly about this mission that they re-organized Google itself, creating a new parent company called Alphabet to serve as an umbrella for moonshot projects.
But so far, Google has had little to show for these efforts. Google Glass was a flop. The company has developed some impressive self-driving technology over the past six years but has still not turned it into a commercial product. Google bought Nest in 2014, but the company has struggled to expand beyond smart thermostats. Google acquired some robotics startups in 2014, but hasn’t figured out what to do with them and wound up putting one up for sale.
One of the big problems here seems to be that Page and company are a little too focused on solving hard technical problems. Creating a new computer platform around a pair of glasses is a hard and interesting technical challenge, for example. But it was never clear that solving it would produce to a viable product.
Google’s most promising “moonshot” is its self-driving car project, which is widely regarded as the technology leader. But top engineers on the project have grown impatient with the company’s slow pace in getting to market. A team of Google engineers left Google to found Otto, a self-driving truck company acquired by Uber earlier this year. The leader of Google’s self-driving car project, Chris Urmson, recently quit to create a self-driving car startup of his own.
Similarly, robotics is an important area of computer science research. But it was never clear what Google was going to do with a menagerie of robot startups. The thinking seemed to be that Google would acquire the best talent first and come up with a plan to make money later.
Of course, it’s possible that Google’s self-driving car project or one of the other moonshots will produce a spectacular business success that will justify the costs of the other failures. But so far, at least, Google’s efforts to branch out into markets other than online services haven’t borne much fruit.

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