Now that Sundar Pichai is running Google, the company’s founders are letting him write their letter, too. On Thursday morning, Pichai took his first go at the “Founders’ Letter,” Google’s annual, often vague view of its “unconventional” nature and future.
Pichai’s note is long. It doesn’t really contain anything new or mind-blowing. But he does put down his six areas of focus for the famously unfocused company. The letter underscores how much Google is prioritizing artificial intelligence. It is certainly not a departure from the Google under Alphabet CEO Larry Page, but it does signal the narrower focus Pichai is trying to impose on the 60,000-plus-person behemoth now that the Alphabet moonshots have been stripped out.
Here is his six-point plan:
Search and assistance
Not surprising. Pichai still sees his first product — and still moneymaker — as “the very core of the company,” and its key competitive edge. It’s not just search, though. Do note that Pichai pairs it with “assistance” and hints at how the tech is moving to other parts of our lives.
You should be able to move seamlessly across Google services in a natural way, and get assistance that understands your context, situation and needs — all while respecting your privacy and protecting your data. The average parent has different needs than the average college student. Similarly, a user wants different help when in the car versus the living room. Smart assistance should understand all of these things and be helpful at the right time, in the right way.
While Google has cornered internet search, it faces a heap of rivals in assistance, namely Apple, Amazon, Facebook and perhaps someone that we and Pichai do not yet know about.
Pichai hit on Google’s advantage in artificial intelligence during the company’s earnings call last week. He mentions machine learning, Google’s favorite AI method, five times in the letter. He doesn’t get much into specifics on AI here, beyond that Google is very good at it.
Content and the web
YouTube is still in Google, remember? It’s a big deal, Pichai says. So is Google Play, the division that Google plans to turn from simply an Android app store into a digital media powerhouse. Google’s mobile publishing tool, AMP, gets a shout-out, along with improved web applications — an obvious business priority for Google, which fears a world of app-only content.
Android and virtual reality
Computers are everywhere! In our pockets, our homes, our cars, plus on a few people’s wrists. Google wants to own the platform here. This is not new, but it’s important that Pichai is grouping virtual reality (and, unspoken, augmented reality) with Android and platforms, rather than with YouTube and content. Here’s Pichai:
Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the “device” to fade away. Over time, the computer itself — whatever its form factor — will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.
Having tech fade into the background — ambient computing, roughly — is a long obsession of Page’s. The question now is whether Pichai can translate this obsession into popular products. He mentions screens on the wrist and in cars, but does not mention those on our faces.
Again, not surprising. Google is hoping that enterprise services will be one of its next big businesses after search and ads. And also not surprising: Pichai notes that machine learning will be Google’s differentiator here.
Access for everyone
Pichai’s Google is still classic Google — and it still likes to paint its mission as do-goodery. “Technology is a democratizing force,” Pichai writes. Spreading the internet to everyone, particularly the roughly three billion unconnected people worldwide, is still a big personal priority for Pichai. And he is restructuring Google to crack this problem.
He mentions cheaper devices and offline products like Maps and YouTube. But he doesn’t, naturally, mention how Google is still grappling with the best ways to do this while warding off its chief rival, Facebook, from doing the same.