Android Intelligence Analysis

6 smart things to think over with Google's leadership shuffle

If you want to process this week's bombshell that Google's founders are resigning, these are the themes you should focus on.

Google / Alphabet CEO
geralt/Google/JR Raphael (CC0)

Oh, hey — didja hear? Larry and Sergey are leaving! Google's founders are jumping ship! THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT IS BEING SHAKEN UP AND TURNED UPSIDE-DOWN.

Well, kind of. It's true that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the two fellas who started Google in what I can only assume was a somewhat dank and none-too-fresh-smelling garage some 20 years ago, are stepping back from their formal roles within the company. The pair announced as much in a public letter this week, saying it was "the natural time to simplify" the management structure and revealing that current Google CEO Sundar Pichai would take over the role of Alphabet CEO — a position held by Page up til now — in addition to retaining all of his existing duties.

(Brin's job of Alphabet president — a position whose practical purpose was even more murky than Page's CEO role — seems like it'll simply be eliminated.)

Well, shiver me timbers: This all sure sounds pretty sporkin' earth-shattering on the surface. And it certainly is significant, in some sense; after all, the once-influential creators of a company formally resigning from their management roles is monumental, at least from a historical and sentimental perspective.

But, well, Google isn't exactly an ordinary organization. And so it only makes sense that there'd be more to this story.

Join me in thinking through some critical context to Google's high-profile and widely misunderstood management shuffle, and let's see if we can get to the bottom of what it really signifies.

Here we go:

1. Pichai was already overseeing Alphabet's most important areas

Have you ever tried to explain to someone what Alphabet is? The first challenge is getting across the idea that Alphabet even is something, as hardly anyone who doesn't watch tech like a hawk is aware that it exists.

Once you manage that, you invariably wade into the thorny subject of what Alphabet truly represents — a conversation that, in my experience, usually goes a little somethin' like this:

"Um, well, y'see, a few years ago, Google decided to make itself one small part of a bigger umbrella company — kind of like a 'holding company,' I think? So Google is technically one wing of Alphabet, I guess, and other things that used to be part of Google are now their own separate wings of Alphabet."

Oh, I get it! So, like, YouTube and Android and Nest and whatever are all their own baby companies, alongside Google, and Alphabet is the papa?

"Uh....well, not exactly. I mean, YouTube and Android are still part of Google. Nest was its own separate wing under Alphabet for a while, but it's back within Google now, too."

Huh. So what else is under Alphabet, then?

And that's usually where you coyly try to change the subject (or just give up and gallop out of the room while making cacaw sounds as a distraction).

I mean, honestly, how many Alphabet companies — outside of Google — can you name? Assuming you aren't a professional industry "pundit" (which I'm pretty sure is a euphemism for "unemployed blowhard"), at best, you might come up with "some health research thing, some investment stuff or other, and something about hot air balloons?" Heck, even Alphabet's official website doesn't appear to have been updated since the organization's formation in 2015. You really have to do some serious digging to figure out what the hell it's all about.

But once you do, you discover that beyond the health research thing, the investment stuff, and the something-about-hot-air-balloons matter, Alphabet has a handful of thus-far-unrealized experimental sorts of projects within it — including the DeepMind artificial intelligence research group and the Waymo self-driving, uh, brainstorming entity. It also houses the confusingly named Google Fiber — the once-promising-sounding effort to bring affordable high-speed internet access to all of America that's now separated from Google and faded into barely-active-seeming obscurity.

When it comes to the more significant parts of the Alphabet operation, though, both from a business perspective and from the perspective of what actually impacts us as fragrant-footed bipeds who use the products — y'know, products like Google Search, YouTube, Maps, the whole advertising empire, and those silly little things we call Chrome and Android — well, those were already all under Pichai's purview.

And that brings us to our second point:

2. Alphabet projects that become particularly significant seem to have a way of moving back to Google, anyhow

The most prominent example is Nest, and it's an especially striking one: When Nest first became its own standalone entity, separate from Google and under the Alphabet umbrella, things didn't exactly go well.

During its Alphabet era, the company — which was initially held up as an illustration of what the Alphabet-centric, everything-isn't-Google model was supposed to achieve — lost its two co-founders and the founder of a high-profile connected camera company it acquired. It struggled to ship new products and seemed weirdly at odds with Google's own smart-hardware-making efforts. Google even reportedly tried (and failed) to sell the organization off altogether at a certain point, and stories abounded about discontent and frustration within the Nest ranks.

Now united with Google's hardware team, Nest is shipping products and slowly but surely settling on a cohesive strategy. Its story is far from finished, but it's certainly a dramatic turn from where it was a few short years ago.

Google similarly swallowed up Alphabet's enterprise security company Chronicle this past summer, just a few months after Chronicle released its first official product. From the sounds of it — with a little between-the-lines reading — out in the real world, Chronicle wasn't acquiring its own clients quickly enough and so it made more sense for it to become a part of Google's existing Google Cloud service instead of awkwardly trying to succeed as its own standalone entity.

See the trend here?

3. Page and Brin have already, by most measures, been mostly absent for a while

Perhaps the most important unspoken takeaway from this week's shift is the fact that the whole thing seems more symbolic than anything — more of a formalization of something that had largely already happened as opposed to a sudden shocking change.

To wit: Neither Page nor Brin has had any significant public role within Alphabet in ages. Neither even attended the company's last two shareholder meetings. When someone appears publicly on the organization's behalf — be it at an investor-focused event, a customer-focused unveiling, or a politically required meeting or hearing of some sort — it's almost always Pichai (along with other appropriate executives).

Even within Google's walls, the founders have long been conspicuously absent, according to numerous reports. In June, Bloomberg posed the question: "Where Is Larry Page? Alphabet Deserves Better" — the title of an article that made a pretty damning proclamation:

Alphabet has both a functional CEO in Pichai and a figurehead CEO who busies himself with far-off technology and is otherwise increasingly a ghost inside and outside of the company. ...

Everyone would like to do only the interesting parts of a job and skip the unpleasant or dull tasks. That’s not how adult life works, and that isn’t how a public company should work, either.

Page and Brin had even both mostly stopped attending their company's legendary "TGIF" town-hall-style pow-wows for employees — a noteworthy contrast from the past, when their presence was generally considered a given. (Those meetings have also since been scaled back and revamped into more structured monthly meetings about "product and business strategy," but that's another discussion for another time.)

4. Page and Brin may be formally stepping down in title, but they're ultimately still in control

This part is key: While both of Google's founders are relinquishing their managerial titles — "assum[ing] the role of product parents, offering advice and not but not daily nagging," as they put it — the two still have total command of their company's course.

It's no exaggeration: Page and Brin control more than 50% of the voting power on Alphabet's board, where they'll stay on as members. They're effectively kings of the Alphabet empire, in other words, and they'll continue to make the big decisions even if they aren't doing the day-to-day legwork.

That little tidbit makes the change in titles seem slightly less significant, doesn't it?

5. Page and Brin are reducing their roles at a time when strong leadership is most needed — and arguably most difficult

It's not a frequent subject of discussion in these more practical-impact-focused quarters of ours, but it's no secret that Google (and thus also Alphabet) is facing some serious challenges as a company right now — challenges that relate to labor issues and employee unrest as well as broader and not entirely unrelated questions about the company's culture. And that's to say nothing of the growing storm of political and regulatory hurdles that's long been a-brewin' and threatening to explode.

Page and Brin, perhaps not surprisingly, don't seem particularly interested in such issues. They're engineers — product guys. This stuff is difficult, dull, and presumably far less rewarding than achieving some awe-inspiring new technological breakthrough.

And while Google is of course still simultaneously charging forward on the tech front, it's hard not to think that the cultural, political, and regulatory issues are gonna be the biggest and most consequential challenges for the company in the months and maybe even years ahead — particularly from the perspective of a founder or executive.

Maybe Page and Brin aren't the right guys to steer that ship. It's certainly easy to see why they might not want to; even in a simpler past, Page was known to shy away from the more mundane managerial tasks, devoting his time and attention more toward product strategy and then outsourcing policy, budgets, and other such dry matters to folks who seemed better suited to handle 'em. He often spoke of wanting Google to act more like a startup, and there's nothing less startup-like than dealing with bureaucratic monotony.

6. The impact of this change — for us, as users — seems likely to be far less dramatic than what we've seen with Pichai's previous promotions

Given everything we've just discussed, the notion of this change in leadership leading to any major practical changes for us — not investors or shareholders or employees but simply the regular ol' folk who rely on Google services — doesn't seem especially likely.

Ultimately, the whole point of the Alphabet umbrella organization existing in the first place was to isolate the more experimental projects and thus allow Larry Page to focus on such "bigger-picture" thinking while Sundar Pichai handled the day-to-day business operations. The other point was to separate the less immediately profitable parts of the operation from the viable Google businesses and thereby to enhance investors' views of Google's success.

Well, the Page part of the equation is no longer relevant. And the investor part of it was never especially relevant from any practical, user-oriented standpoint.

Now, compare that with six years ago, when Pichai — then a Google VP in charge of Chrome — took over as the chief of Android following Android creator Andy Rubin's departure.

That change, as I noted back in 2013, made a significant and very noticeable difference: It made Android start to feel "more like a Google product and less like its own island within the Google universe" — with the first real steps toward a more Google-like design, the first prominent integration of non-Android-specific Google functionality, and generally just the beginning of a more consistent and connected sort of experience. It's tough to remember now, but that was a pretty sharp change from the way Android had been up to that point.

And all of that's to say nothing about the transformative Android-Chrome-OS alignment we've been seeing slowly take shape over the past several years, with seeds being planted around that same era.

Putting all of Alphabet under Pichai's direction sure doesn't seem likely to have anywhere near that level of outward-facing impact, even if it could perhaps lead to a similar sort of increased unification from an internal organization perspective. Heck, even if Pichai pulls the ultimate Google move and eventually "spring cleans" Alphabet itself into oblivion, the practical impact for us on the outside would presumably be pretty minimal.

To sum things up, then: The founders of Google are stepping down from managerial roles they haven't really been actively practicing for a long time now while continuing to hold onto ultimate control of what happens within the company. And the guy who's been in charge of all the important stuff for a while already will continue to be in charge of all the important stuff, just with some other odds and ends sprinkled on top.

It wouldn't be Google if there weren't some level of near-constant change, but all in all, this shift — monumental as it may be in certain senses — seems like something that's more of a long-time-coming, logical sort of adjustment than any earth-shattering recalibration.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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