Disclaimer: Opinions expressed below belong solely to the author.
As I was working on a Google Ads project for a long-time client, sifting through its automated “recommendations” for his ad account, something dawned on me:
The way things are today, Google (Alphabet) may not survive another 10 or 20 years.
And it’s not the only major company that may unexpectedly go down the drain, even if most people think it is too big to fall.
There are many cautionary tales from the past — of businesses which seemed so huge and so successful that nothing would be able to dent them — and then something, someone, came along and kicked them into the dustbin of history.
22 years ago, Nokia was the world’s largest mobile phone maker and hit a peak valuation of over US$300 billion. AOL peaked at over US$200 billion, Yahoo at over US$100 billion around the time Google was a garage project of two students.
In fact, those two students — who are now multibillionaires — Larry Page and Sergey Brin, offered to sell Google to Yahoo for a mere million bucks in 1998. They were turned down.
Today, Nokia — while still in existence — is worth less than 10 per cent of what it used to, has left the consumer phone space, and is getting by on its intellectual property and research in the field of enterprise telecommunications.
It’s no longer a household name, even though at one time, most mobile users on the planet carried one of its phones in their pockets.
AOL, the giant that once opened the doors to the internet to millions of Americans, was swept up by Verizon for mere US$4.5 billion a few years ago, along with Yahoo — once the front-page of the internet and its most popular search engine — for about the same.
Last year, both were dumped again, at another 40 per cent discount.
All of them fell from grace because they have grown complacent and slow to respond to innovation brought out by others. They relied on sluggish, increasingly outdated, inflexible business models which once made them rich and seemingly untouchable.
Until it turned out they weren’t — a realisation that happened very suddenly, unexpectedly wiping them out in just a few years.
And I feel the same is happening with at least three of the modern giants: Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook) and Adobe, collectively worth over US$2 trillion dollars.
Innovation? What innovation?
Google is regularly ranked among the world’s most innovative companies but, for the love of me, I have no idea why.
Google Ads are no longer really genuinely helping businesses reach more customers — the system is designed in a way that is, by my observation, designed to squeeze out the most money out of advertisers by often suggesting them actions that are not in their best interest.
It’s either an example of poor engineering and appalling machine learning or worse, a deliberate policy.
I know this firsthand after observing results from which the supposedly smart algorithms refuse to learn, defaulting to spending more money than is otherwise necessary.
But if that’s too niche-specific and not really relatable to you, let’s focus on Google’s (Alphabet’s) key, customer-facing product that drives most of its ads: its search engine.
After a quarter of a century, Google’s delivery of search results hasn’t fundamentally evolved. It’s still the same page with links leading to supposedly most relevant results — only they still contain a ton of spam or even outright misleading and deceptive sites that continue to outsmart Google’s engineers and rank higher than reputable websites or businesses.
It seems that Google has stopped caring about improving its search engine because there’s seemingly nobody who could challenge its de facto global monopoly. So, why bother?
At the same time, it’s advertising that still brings in the vast majority of money — 80 per cent of Alphabet’s revenue, in fact.
In other words, the company is still dependent on 20-year old ideas that it is obviously not intent on meaningfully improving.
Even its venture into the mobile world, where Android is dominating in terms of market share, is ultimately supporting the very same ecosystem of free apps that Google uses to drive people to advertising that it cashes in on.
Advertising, let’s remember, that is still largely based on displaying either clickable entries on a search results page, intrusive banners on third-party sites and apps, or interrupts your videos on YouTube and elsewhere (while you’re just waiting to skip to what you really came to watch).
How long can a company survive if it depends on a search system that still struggles to provide accurate information and weed out spam or deception, and advertising that is largely an unwanted annoyance for the target audience?
It’s quite clear that both are ripe for a shakeup by another innovative startup showing the big, slow elephant that it can’t really think forward (in seven years of Alphabet’s other investments have, so far, failed to provide anything novel, after all).
Facebook’s story is largely similar. It wasn’t first to the social media market, but it was the first to provide something that glued people to their screens — a timeline of activities from accounts and pages within a user’s network.
Fast forward 18 years and it still depends on just that, fending off challengers who applied a similar concept to other media — like images (Instagram, which has since been acquired by Meta) or video (like TikTok).
At the same time, its leadership has obviously grown so self-assured that it believes itself capable of policing thought and speech of Facebook’s three billion users, determining not only what they see, but what penalties are imposed on them for sharing politically incorrect opinions or memes, or even having online quarrels with other users.
Not exactly very “social” after all, is it?
And yet, the next big thing that “Big Brother” Zuckerberg believes will shape our future is the idea of putting on his VR helmets for hours on end, drifting into the virtual reality of the metaverse that he is so committed to that he has even rebranded his entire company around it.
But have users jumped on the hype? Not so much. While the VR market is growing, it is doing so on the back of improved experiences within existing uses like gaming, not new services that are much more comfortably accessed using legacy technologies which don’t induce vertigo or make your eyes and head hurt after an hour or two.
I think it’s rather telling that these two huge companies have decided to rename themselves and yet failed to produce any innovation under either of the names.
Alphabet has been around for seven years and can anybody name anything that it has churned out outside of Google’s brand that would gain global interest?
Meanwhile, Meta’s VR business is just another acquisition (of Oculups, the original innovators in the VR scene), not an internal development. And by Zuckerberg’s creepy launch presentation, it seems that people running the show have, indeed, already lost touch with the real world.
Finally, my personal pet peeve, Adobe. I’ve been working as a graphics designer since my early teens 25 years ago. Back then, Adobe was the pinnacle of software engineering in the field and nobody could come close. Even large, complex works were doable on hardware running a tiny fraction of the computing power modern PCs have.
And yet, after a quarter of the century, vast majority of functions (particularly in apps like Photoshop or Illustrator) are exactly the same, yet have a habit of crashing or slowing down even on advanced hardware. I just had Adobe Acrobat protesting removal of a few pages of a PDF file that simply contained a fair bit of outlined text on a Ryzen machine equipped with an RTX3080 and 64GB of RAM.
Adobe’s customer support forums are filled with mountains of complaints or feature requests dating years into the past that nobody in the company has ever taken care to read, let alone fix or implement.
Even worse, some basic features that are present in one program may be completely absent in another, even though they would be most welcome (and applicable). Heck, even mere copying of content between them is often difficult, buggy or downright impossible.
Why is that? Not because Adobe can’t do it, but because it doesn’t want to — and doesn’t have to, as there’s nobody to threaten its position.
It’s not a company that is any longer driven by engineering milestones, but by financial ones.
Like Boeing, where accountants running the business decided to cut corners so much that two new 737 MAX planes crashed killing a few hundred people on board. All because Boeing wanted to save a bit of money and time on proper licensing procedures that would require retraining existing pilots.
Two years ago, Adobe made a blunder of a similarly catastrophic scale (in proportion, of course) in its own market after a buggy update to Lightroom irreversibly deleted photos and crucial software presets of millions of users of the software on iOS devices.
The dominance it enjoys has culled progress almost entirely, so much so that there are no benefits that it can (or wants to) derive from modern hardware in virtually all of its programs — except for video editing perhaps, but it is largely because in the video space it still has some competition to deal with.
Other than that, it’s simply cheaper to not improve much. Where are the people going to go anyway if Adobe products are not only a global standard, but pretty much a requirement in visual arts and design?
And yet, this is precisely what makes it and other big names so vulnerable. They think they are beyond competition and have strangled innovation in the process, because they just can’t be bothered.
Why improve if you’re so good that you pretty much own the market? And then, one day, someone comes along and shows the old guard that they are no longer good enough. But that lesson typically comes too late.