Google on innovation – or should that be copying?

Patrick Copeland, Google Director of Engineering, gave the keynote at QCon London this morning. His theme was innovation: how it works at Google and elsewhere.

I was expecting some background on Google’s famous 20% time, where employees spent up to one day a week on something not in their job description, but I don’t think Copeland even mentioned it. In fact, he almost argued against it. There is no shortage of bright ideas, he said, and Google has over 100,000 of them in a database; but what matters is not idea, but innovators who have the ability to take a good idea and make it into a product.

He added that whatever “it” may be, building the right “it” is more important than building “it” right. If what you build is the wrong thing, it will not succeed, whereas the right idea will sometimes succeed despite poor implementation. Twitter and its well-known fail whale comes to mind.

Google’s record on innovation is mixed. You can make a long list of Google projects that have failed, from Lively – a kind of Second Life clone – to Google Wave. “You want to fast fail when things aren’t working” said Copeland, making the best of it.

On the other hand, Copeland mentioned GMail as a positive example. I would quibble a bit with this: was GMail innovation, or simply Hotmail done right?

Copeland also mentioned two other examples. The Chrome browser, he said, had two goals: to streamline the user interface so less screen space was wasted, and to have a fast JavaScript engine to show off Google apps. He also observed that rival browsers have copied both ideas; and it is true that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9, which will be released on March 14, happens to have both these features.

What about Android? Copeland said that the Android strategy vs Apple is similar to that of the clone PCs vs IBM in the eighties. He tried to make a point of innovation here, observing that IBM could not compete with innovation from many independent vendors, but this seems to me a stretch. The point about the clone PCs was that they were kind-of the same as the IBM PC but cheaper and faster. It was more about copying than about innovating. I think you can see this playing out with Apple vs Android to some extent, in that there are customers who will end up with an Android smartphone or tablet because it is kind-of the same as an iPhone or iPad but cheaper or with better specifications.

On the other hand, Apple is doing a better job at differentiation than IBM achieved with its PC; and technically iPhone apps do not run on Android so the parallel is far from exact. Many of the same apps are available for both iPhone and Android, so from user’s perspective there is some similarity.

The quick summary then: most innovations fail, and you need innovators rather than simply bright idea. The implication is that successful innovation happens when you have a company with lots of money to spend on projects that will likely fail, and that has a culture which attracts innovators. Google ticks both boxes.

Incidentally, when I asked how Google identifies its innovators Copeland said that you do not need to. They make a nuisance of themselves, so if you have them, you know.

7 thoughts on “Google on innovation – or should that be copying?”

  1. Shaving pixels off the browser UI is pretty me-too, but speeding up the default programming language of the Web? that seems like a legitimate goal for all the browsers. Why would Firefox not want to have better Ajax performance? It’s not as if the Chrome team are the only ones who expect Web apps to be important. Google is starting to sound very whiny when it accuses other companies of copying it, undermining the areas where it really has been innovative (like in business models, like in applying machine learning on an unprecedented scale).

  2. Apologies if that is the case, it is not intended to be. I enjoyed the talk and this is my reflection on it. Please add your comments!


  3. Innovation takes many forms. Its takes a lot of innovation to find a way to implement the same thing at considerably less cost.

  4. @zimmy I agree; in fact that was a point I was trying to make. Innovation and copying are not opposites.


  5. ‘Building the right “it” is more important than building “it” right’
    I’m not sure I agree with this, tablet PCs and smartphones were around for a long time before the iPad and iPhone.

  6. It seems to me that the word innovation is used so loosely at times that the word becomes meaningless. It seems to me that some people use it liberally (and inappropriately) to mean refinement or incremental change in how things are done where as (IMO) innovation is about large scale disruptive change to how we do things. Speeding up web browsers is the former, figuring out a strategy in which you give away cool stuff that others are selling in order to build up mountains of data on your users for the purpose monitising that data for the purpose of advertising and becoming a massive profit driven corporation within a very short time is innovative. Buzz and Wave were interesting experiment but they didn’t catch on, they didn’t change people’s behaviour (maybe someday in the future?). After Picasso how we thought about Art was changed forever, Wave and Buzz were more like New Coke.

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