Sometime in the last two years, there will be a realisation that Google achieved overstretch and shifted from a nimble, Internet company to a sprawling conglomerate. With its focus on many areas, it has been ambitious to obtain a dominance over all aspects of web experience, moving beyond search to social networking, operating systems and browsers. Their dominance in search has not allowed them to recreate this network effect in other areas. Increasingly, Google is jostling amongst new peers, protected by its market dominance in its core competence. Will it venture down the path where restless acquisition and multiple projects seem to tempt it?
A conglomerate with tentacles in myriad industries is not necessarily a good thing. It’s an inordinately tough act to pull off: GE has done it, but it took decades of work. And for Google it will mean giving up the culture of Internet innovation that made it a success in the first place. Conglomerates pour their innovation into management and process — that is, into improving what exists — not necessarily into creating what will be.
This misreads the fast changing pace and innovation of the Web: companies do not straddle industries, they create them. Conglomerates rarely work, and if Google has to sacrifice its core culture to achieve this goal, then such a beast will arrive sickly and soon succumb to sharper carnivores.
If I am right, Google could play a cannier game, placing many bets and allowing innovation to thrive, so that the new developments take place within its walls or can be co-opted. However, they have not yet learned to let go. Social networking will belong to other companies and the mobile network will be a competitive arena. It may take a few failures to learn this lesson, though splinters like Apple have no long-term future (keyman risk and cashflow seduction overcoming the lure of innovation once Steve Jobs goes).