Can Alphabet Ever Mean as Much as Google Does?

Original image: PMillera4 / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Google surprised pretty much everyone today when they announced that, well, they weren’t going to be Google anymore.

Google CEO Larry Page (well, former CEO) said in a statement today that he and Google co-founder Sergey Brin would form a new holding company, Alphabet (with the best domain name on Earth: abc.xyz), of which Google would now be a wholly-owned subsidiary, led by Sundar Pichai, who until today was Google’s head of Android and Chrome.

I have some immediate concerns about it, but I should stipulate I’ve only known about this for a couple of hours. Before I get into that, a bit more on what Alphabet is, and what Google is – and no longer is. Page explained how Google would now be one company among many, each focusing on particular areas and industries that were all once housed under the Google banner:

What is Alphabet? Alphabet is mostly a collection of companies. The largest of which, of course, is Google. This newer Google is a bit slimmed down, with the companies that are pretty far afield of our main internet products contained in Alphabet instead. What do we mean by far afield? Good examples are our health efforts: Life Sciences (that works on the glucose-sensing contact lens), and Calico (focused on longevity). Fundamentally, we believe this allows us more management scale, as we can run things independently that aren’t very related.

… Alphabet will also include our X lab, which incubates new efforts like Wing, our drone delivery effort. We are also stoked about growing our investment arms, Ventures and Capital, as part of this new structure.

I should point out first that I don’t have any problem with the idea of a wholesale reorganization of Google. Giving each disparate aspect of the company its own territory, its share of breathing room, could very well be exactly what they need to thrive. I can’t say one way or the other, but it certainly seems that Larry Page, who lusts to be ruler of a magical libertarian island, at the very least could not be content to be the head of a mere search engine company. And Sundar Pichai, though I find him a little frustrating as a spokesperson for his company, is obviously doing wonderful things, as I can only personally attest by my wholesale embrace of Android over the past year and my admiration and fascination with the Chrome OS. So, functionally, this sounds more or less positive.

My concern is more about what Google means to the culture. In a more crass sense, I suppose my concern is over things like “branding” and “marketing,” but I also think it’s about something a little bigger. In the same way that Apple, in the minds of millions and millions of people, stands for something grander and more esoteric than being a really good gadget company, Google is more than a search engine and browser company.

When people think of Google (or at least when people who think about this kind of thing think of Google), the association goes far beyond their products and services, far beyond search results and targeted ads. It’s about all the other stuff, the (gag) “moonshots”: bringing Internet access to the developing world from the air, building automated vehicles to revolutionize transportation, the attempts to lengthen the freaking human life span. All of that, along with Android and Fiber and Chrome and Nexus and everything else.

Now, a whole lot of that, the boldest, craziest, and most out-there, will now be Alphabet. Google, though it will no doubt continue to do great things within its newly confined realm, won’t get the benefit of that association. And Alphabet won’t get the benefit of being Google in name. It’ll be an uphill battle for this new thing to win that kind of mindshare. The insiders will know, I suppose, the tech press of today will more easily make this psychological transition. But for all of those who are just observers or enthusiasts, or even for those who are simply too young to have a long association with Google, there’s an ethos that could be lost.

I could be really wrong. But if it were me, I’d do the reorganization under the Google banner, let the restructuring be an insiders’ story, and keep the (gag) moonshot mojo under the old name.

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