Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Google's groundwork for its innovation machine is years old

Google is the company to emulate these days, and who can argue? The company does things on its own terms, earns enviable profits, and oh, that stock price.

But as smart as Google's engineers are today, they benefit greatly from decisions and investments made in the company's early days. That's one of the messages from "Reverse Engineering Google's Innovation Machine" (link) in the April Harvard Business Review.

The authors, Bala Iyer and Thomas Davenport of Babson College, point out many reasons for Google success at innovation (culture of experimentation, the 20% rule, etc.). But one reason stuck out for me.

Because of Google's highly-scalable, worldwide information platform, new products can be tested and rolled out extremely cheaply. The authors write:

Google’s infrastructure is well suited to executing an entire product-development life cycle rapidly and efficiently. Google engineers prototype new applications on the platform; if any of these begin to get users’ attention, developers can launch beta versions to see whether the company’s vast captive customer base responds enthusiastically. If one of the applications becomes a hit, Google’s enormous “cloud” of computing capability can make room for it.

Google's platform as a distinctive capability is not new. I vividly recall three things about first using Google in the late 1990's. First, the relevance of the results (searching on "Ford" got you Ford's website, instead of some other site); second, the simplicity of the interface. And, third, the speed of the results.

In the original interface, before text ads, Google prominently displayed how quickly search results came up--in some fraction of a second. Back then, it was some feat. Even now, with most screens coming up with banner ads and other content loading from distant servers, most websites take some seconds to display completely. Google remains blindingly fast in comparison.

And one nice side effect of that early focus on speed--now it's easy and cheap to roll out new applications.

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