It looks like most of the publications and pundits of the world had something to say about the surprise-of-the-decade: Google’s transformation into Alphabet (Techmeme provides a sample here). For me, the numerous questions they posed only triggered further questions: Is the new holding company going to be like Berkshire Hathaway, or GE, or AT&T or an early retirement playground for Page and Brin, playing God instead of golf? Is Larry Page saying he does not want to be Bill Gates or does he want to be Thomas Edison Plus? Is it just a simple “re-org,” so typical of large and lumbering companies, masquerading as an “unconventional move”?
In his post (not in a conventional press release) announcing the surprising metamorphosis, Larry Page made sure to remind us that “As Sergey and I wrote in the original founders letter 11 years ago, ‘Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.’”
Google, now Alphabet, is indeed an unconventional company in many respects, not the least of which is that the aforementioned founders hold 54% of the stock’s voting rights, giving them full control of the company. But at its core, I would argue, it’s a conventional company in a conventional business.
“Invention is not enough,” Page has said (see James Altucher’s post). “You have to combine both things: invention and innovation focus, plus the company that can commercialize things and get them to people.”
For Page and Brin, the key invention was a better search engine. But they brilliantly coupled it, with the help of the bright people they hired, with two other inventions that made that original invention a commercial success: Developing their own computing infrastructure capable of handling Brontobyte Data and a completely new approach to selling advertising.
By relying on advertising for its livelihood (it still accounts for over 90% of Google’s revenues), Google has become a conventional media company. It has enjoyed the growing stream of advertising dollars shifting from print and other channels to online. But it will be the victim of its own success: As online advertising becomes more dominant, growth will slow and Google’s fortunes will rise and fall with the advertising market which typically follows the rise and fall of economy (online advertising in the U.S., growing at 13%, already accounts for 28% of the overall advertising market which will grow only 3.2% this year).
In addition, relying on a segment of the advertising market which is completely dependent on ever-changing technology is a challenge in and of itself, as we have already seen in the ups and downs of display advertising and the shift from desktop to mobile. If some bright young entrepreneur (or a PhD student) finds tomorrow a way to transmit advertising to our brains without the help of devices and the Internet and we readily accept it in exchange for some new, can’t-live-without service, there will be no Google as we know it. Ditto if that proverbial kid in the garage will invent the real “disruption,” a new way to promote companies and their offerings, without what we have called “advertising” for centuries.
That may happen tomorrow or may not happen for a long time, so Page and Brin will continue to have the funds to fuel their ambitions. It’s just that now they will not have to deal at all with the day-to-day management of what has become for them a boring cash cow.
Brin has already done that for a number of years, focusing entirely on “moonshots.” But Page apparently wanted to prove to himself in 2011 (not to the world—he probably doesn’t care much about other people’s opinions) that he can also be a CEO of a large company and could make it re-invent itself. In this (the re-invention part) he completely failed. It may not be a coincidence that we learned of the final demise of Google’s grand social experiment, Page’s attempt to out-Facebook Facebook, just before the surprise Alphabet announcement. (It may also not be a coincidence that the announcement came on the 20th anniversary of When Larry Met Sergey, the first milestone in the official Google history timeline).
The failures are insignificant light of the history Page and Brin have made by giving millions of people around the world, in exchange for their data, very useful tools, at no cost. But brilliant inventions turned into commercial success, however, are not enough for the likes of Page and Brin and they never liked where the money supporting their free services came from, channeling (probably preceding) Jeff Hammerbacher’s sentiment: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” Their version of a mid-life crisis is to remove themselves from their very successful one-trick advertising pony and immerse themselves in attempting to make very big history or Brontobyte history.
Page and Brin are sometimes mentioned—and explained—together with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos as the result of Montessori education (see here and here). But I think there is something much more important at the root of Page, Brin, and Bezos’s ambitions and successful enterprises. In the words of Harry Louis Sullivan, describing Chicago in 1875:
“Big” was the word. “Biggest” was preferred, and “the biggest in the world” was the braggart phrase on every tongue. Chicago had had the biggest conflagration “in the world.” It was the biggest grain and lumber market “in the world.” It slaughtered more hogs than any other city “in the world.” It was the greatest railroad center, the greatest this, and the greatest that… what they said was true; and had they said, in the din, we are the crudest, rawest, most savagely ambitious dreamers and would-be doers in the world, that also might be true… These men had vision. What they saw was real, they saw it as destiny.
Continuing an American tradition (how “unconventional”), Page, Brin, and Bezos saw “big” as their destiny. Page and Brin named their company after a very big number. Bezos chose the largest river in the world to stand for “the everything store.” But Bezos has taken a different route to world domination, one that is not depended on advertising and using us as the product, but on changing the way we buy and sell goods and services, inventing new ways to consume while driving down the cost of consumption. His one-trick pony, selling books online, has metamorphosed into selling everything, including computer services, serving as a platform for other sellers, creating content, designing devices, and more.
Page has said “especially in technology, we need revolutionary change, not incremental change, “and “I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society.” Bezos believes in incremental change and doesn’t talk much about Amazon’s impact on society. In about ten years, we should have a better idea of which approach—Alphabet’s or Amazon’s—has left a bigger and more positive impact on the world.
An earlier version of this psot was published on Forbes.com