Google X Labs: With Steve Jobs Gone, Could Google Take the Torch in Inventing the Future?
Steve Jobs was no fan of Google. But with Jobs gone, might the company be the best hope of picking up where he left off?
Despite Google’s famous corporate motto “Don’t Be Evil,” Steve Jobs clearly wasn’t buying the company’s benevolence. As evidenced in his now-legendary threat to go to “thermonuclear war” and spend all of Apple’s money killing the Android, which he insisted stole proprietary inventions of the iPhone, Jobs scorned Google as a bunch of rip-off artists.
Actually, “evil” was an insult Jobs hurled at Google verbatim, as well as against Bill Gates. And Jobs’s war with Google over the Android closely resembles his bitter dispute with Gates over the emergence of Windows in the early ’90s. Walter Isaacson’s new book on Jobs details how infuriated Jobs was that Microsoft copied the idea for a user friendly graphical interface to replace the old-fashioned blinking cursor on a blank screen, which had been Jobs’s great insight in developing Apple.
The core ideas for personal computing that so heavily influenced Jobs were underway at a special lab that Xeorx had built on the Stanford University campus, not far from where Jobs grew up, called Xerox PARC. When he was building Apple, he deftly negotiated a deal to allow Xerox to invest in the company in exchange for being able to raid the top-secret designs at Xerox PARC.
As Gates told Jobs when Jobs accused him stealing Apple’s operating system to make Windows: “We both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”
Now it seems that Google has built its very own Xerox PARC.
Google’s penchant for top-secret tech inventions has become legendary, reaching mythic status last fall when it was revealed the company had developed a self-driving car. Now the New York Times reports on the existence of Google X, a lab for inventions so secret most Google employees don’t even know it exists.
“One Google engineer familiar with Google X said it was run as mysteriously as the C.I.A. — with two offices, a nondescript one for logistics, on the company’s Mountain View campus, and one for robots, in a secret location.”
But it sounds like Google has more in common with Jobs than a simple tendency to keep new work top secret. One of the hallmarks of Jobs’s imaginative genius was the belief that consumers did not know what they needed or wanted—that it is the job of true innovators to dream up the things people will grow to need. When a reporter asked Jobs what kind of focus groups he had conducted before introducing the revolutionary Macintosh in 1984, he quipped, “Did Alexander Graham Bell do focus groups before he invented the telephone?”
Although Jobs harbored a vitriolic contempt for Google, it sounds like the Google X lab is dedicated to dreaming up the future landscape of technology in a way that no one but Jobs has dared. Aside from completing the self-driving car, Google is reportedly working on devices that range from an internet-connected refrigerator that reorders your groceries to advanced robots that aid domestic life a la “The Jetsons” to a “space elevator” that would allow for rocket-less space travel.
So far Google has excelled at developing some tools and failed at others. Their efforts to develop a social network have historically fallen flat, and their strategy on Android has been a double-edged sword: Its software and operating system impressed technophiles, but its strategy of licensing it out to any hardware maker who wants in on the action is the exact same path that led Microsoft to be regarded as a ubiquitous yet soulless tool.
Jobs’s major insight was that for technology to truly impact humanity, it needed to have “insanely great” design to make it feel human and relatable. Google X labs appears to be dreaming up exactly the kind of personal uses for technology that Jobs loved. But in order for them to have the kind of impact that Apple products have had, they’ll need the vision to translate their ideas into human experience.
This should prove quite a challenge for Google. Still, with the tech smarts and imagination the company houses under its roof, it seems like the best bet to pick up where Jobs left off in inventing the next great wave in human-scale technology. Like Jobs, Google’s founders were insanely young when their company was catapulted into the stratosphere. Sergey Brin is still only 38. Maybe it’s Brin’s turn to “think different.”
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