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A decade and a half of instability: The history of Google messaging apps
Sixteen years after the launch of Google Talk, Google messaging is still a mess.
Google Talk, Google’s first-ever instant messaging platform, launched on August 24, 2005. This company has been in the messaging business for 16 years, meaning Google has been making messaging clients for longer than some of its rivals have existed. But thanks to a decade and a half of nearly constant strategy changes, competing product launches, and internal sabotage, you can’t say Google has a dominant or even stable instant messaging platform today.
Google’s 16 years of messenger wheel-spinning has allowed products from more focused companies to pass it by. Embarrassingly, nearly all of these products are much younger than Google’s messaging efforts. Consider competitors like WhatsApp (12 years old), Facebook Messenger (nine years old), iMessage (nine years old), and Slack (eight years old)—Google Talk even had video chat four years before Zoom was a thing.
Currently, you would probably rank Google’s offerings behind every other big-tech competitor. A lack of any kind of top-down messaging leadership at Google has led to a decade and a half of messaging purgatory, with Google both unable to leave the space altogether and unable to commit to a single product. While companies like Facebook and Salesforce invest tens of billions of dollars into a lone messaging app, Google seems content only to spin up an innumerable number of under-funded, unstable side projects led by job-hopping project managers. There have been periods when Google briefly produced a good messaging solution, but the constant shutdowns, focus-shifting, and sabotage of established products have stopped Google from carrying much of these user bases—or user goodwill—forward into the present day.
Because no single company has ever failed at something this badly, for this long, with this many different products (and because it has barely been a month since the rollout of Google Chat), the time has come to outline the history of Google messaging. Prepare yourselves, dear readers, for a non-stop rollercoaster of new product launches, neglected established products, unexpected shut-downs, and legions of confused, frustrated, and exiled users.
Table of Contents
- Google Talk (2005)—Google’s first chat service, built on open protocols
- Google Talk ran Android’s entire push notification system
- The slow death of GTalk
- Google Voice (2009)—SMS and Phone calls get a dose of the Internet
- Google Wave (2009)—An email killer from the future
- Nobody knew what Wave was for or how to use it
- Google Buzz (2010)—The non-consensual social network
- Slide’s Disco (2011)—An independent app escapes the Googleplex
- The Google+ Era (2011)—Google’s social panic
- Google+ Hangouts video chat—The first Hangouts
- Google+ Huddle/Messenger—I guess we should have some kind of DM function
- A competitor emerges—iMessage has entered the chat
- One more competitor—WhatsApp is now worth $22 billion
- Google Docs Editor Chat (2013)—Just like Gmail chat, but not integrated with anything
- Google Hangouts (2013)—Google’s greatest messaging service
- The death of Hangouts, unified Google messaging, and hope
- Google Spaces (2016)—A messaging app for Google I/O 2016 attendees
- Google Allo (2016)—Google’s dead-on-arrival WhatsApp clone
- Allo’s legacy: The Google Assistant
- Google Duo (2016)—A video companion app for… WhatsApp?
- Google (Hangouts) Meet (2017)—Not Zoom
- YouTube Messages (2017)—Yes, this was really a thing
- Google (Hangouts) Chat (2018)—Part 1: Cloning Slack is actually a good idea
- Google Maps Messages (2018)—Business messaging, now with the instability of Google
- Google & RCS (2019)—So we found this dusty old messaging standard in a closet…
- RCS is bad, and anyone who likes it should feel bad
- Google Photos Messages (2019)—You get a messaging feature! And YOU! And you!
- Google Stadia Messages (2020)—Two great tastes that taste great together
- Google Pay Messages (2021)—We actually learned nothing from Google Allo
- Google Assistant Messages (2021)—Text and voice chat, for families?
- Google Phone Messaging (2021)—Isn’t this going a little too far?
- Google Chat, Part 2 (2021)—No wait, this is actually a consumer app now!
- Is anyone in charge at Google?
Google Talk (2005)—Google’s first chat service, built on open protocols
Lifetime: August 24, 2005-June 26, 2017 (12 years, until a Hangouts merger in 2013)
Clients: Windows, Android, the web, Gmail, Blackberry, iPhone, iGoogle, Orkut, any XMPP client
In the beginning, there was Google Talk, and things were good. Google’s first messaging service (which often got the unofficial nickname „GChat“) was also one of its best. It boasted a wide range of platform support, a long shelf life, and useful integration in a number of other Google products. Google Talk was part of the second big wave of popular instant messaging apps, and it seemed primed to take on the 1990’s stalwarts of instant messaging like AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger.
So much about Google Talk’s life and design sounds like it was created by a totally different company from the Google that exists today. The original vision for Google Talk was about openness and „enabling user choice.“ Google wanted instant messaging to work like email, where different service providers and clients could all talk to each other over a single standard (wouldn’t that have been nice?). That standard was XMPP, or the „Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol,“ an open source communication protocol used for passing around chat messages, presence information, contacts, and more. Google pledged to federate (or allow cross-communication) with any other chat service supporting the standard. You could also punch the right settings into any XMPP-compatible third-party client and talk to your Google Talk friends.
Because Ars Technica is a Very Old Website, you can still read a day-one, 2005 Google Talk review right here from Ars Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher (can you believe Ken used to write articles?). Back then, Ken called day-one Google Talk „the Stone Age of instant messaging,“ citing a severe lack of features like file sharing, chat logs, group chat, or emoticons. There was one supported platform at launch: Microsoft Windows. That was mostly fine in 2005 when Windows had something like a 97 percent market share. Even then, XMPP support meant that you could still get online with the other 3 percent of operating systems by using a ton of third-party clients.
There will be a few recurring themes in this exhaustive history, and one of them is Google’s penchant for launching things in a „Minimum Viable Product“ (MVP) state. MVP is Silicon Valley project manager lingo for launching with the absolute bare minimum of features, getting feedback from the public quickly, and letting that feedback determine the future of the product. The idea is that it’s cheaper, easier, and less risky than developing a fully featured product in a bubble, since such a product might miss the mark with the public despite all the work. The downside to an MVP launch is that your product gets the most attention and news coverage when it is brand new, and you’re often giving a bad first impression. In a competitive landscape, there’s a chance the public will check out your bare-bones creation, declare it to be hopeless, and forget about it.
Google does MVP launches all the time, and with Google Talk, that meant launching with the ability to send messages, do voice chat, and little else. Later we’ll cover some of Google’s dead-on-arrival MVP launches, but 2005 was a different era. Many people saw Google Talk’s bare-bones interface and features as a positive thing. In the era of AOL Instant Messenger, IM clients were noisy, flashy billboards with a million features and dedicated UI space for banner ads. A 2006 post from the Google Operating System blog sums up the differences well with installer file sizes, which is an interesting benchmark metric. Yahoo Messenger was 9.5MB. Windows Live Messenger was 15.3MB. Google Talk was a lean, mean 1.45MB.
While the AOL-style kitchen sink design was horrible, it also solved a key problem that will hang over Google’s efforts: „How does a messaging service make money?“ Back in the AIM days, that was answered with a literal banner ad in the UI. Every AOL user was generating ad impressions and revenue every time they used the service. Google Talk’s removal of the banner ad was a breath of fresh air, but it also meant the product had no plan for making money. The vast majority of Google’s messaging apps have nothing to offer when it comes to the monetization question. Maybe that’s a big part of why we’re here.
While Google Talk launched as a basic product, once it was out the door, a series of rapid-fire updates followed. In December, Google bought a 5 percent stake in AOL for $1 billion and promised a cross-communication between AIM, ICQ, and Google Talk. January 2006 saw the first official mobile client: a Blackberry app (Android did not exist yet) and federation with the public XMPP network. In February, Google Talk became integrated with Gmail on the web and added chat logs. Avatar support came in March, and July brought file transfers, voicemail, and sharing music status. September opened up Google Talk to non „Gmail accounts“ (this pre-dates unified Google accounts), and November added integration with Orkut, a social network the company launched two years earlier. By the end of the year, Google announced plans for integration with traditional phone systems, letting you dial a phone number from your computer.
The Gmail integration at around the six-month mark was a big deal for Google Talk. Chat contacts got a spot in the Gmail sidebar, and chat messages would appear as pop-up windows alongside your email. As Google put it in its blog post, „Gmail is now just another XMPP client that connects to the Google Talk network.“ If Gmail users didn’t check out Google Talk when it first launched or gave up on it after trying the bare-bones launch, they would definitely be reminded of it now that it got a headline spot in the Gmail interface.
A lot of Google’s future instant messaging decisions seem to be about recapturing the magic of Google Talk, and it seems like one of the lessons learned was „leverage the rest of the Google user base to shove your new product in front of users.“ Like with MVP launches, this strategy would fail spectacularly in the future, but it worked out for Google Talk. Web-based IM was novel in 2006, and casting a slightly wider net with Gmail from „email“ to „communication“ made sense. Gmail integration also brought with it chat logging, via a searchable, cloud-stored „chat“ label in Gmail. Being able to dig through all your email and chats with a single search was great.
That was basically the first year of Google Talk’s existence, and the overwhelming feeling at the time was „optimism.“ While the original MVP release could have turned off some users, Google quickly addressed complaints with the original release, and Talk felt like a growing instant messaging service with a bright future and lots of resources behind it. Plus, it was from Google. In the 2005-era, Google was a rocketship. This was a company that recently disrupted the web email market with the launch of Gmail and its astounding 1GB of free online storage. Google Maps had just arrived with the revolutionary ability to move the map around without having to reload the entire website. Google had just had an IPO! This was a company that was regularly up-ending existing markets, and now the company was going to be a dominant force in the instant messaging market, right?
Many of Google Talk’s clients were for things you’ve probably forgotten about. A client for the „iGoogle“ customizable homepage arrived in 2007, along with a standalone web client at Google.com/talk. Today, Google developing a single native Windows app sounds crazy, but in 2008, a second Windows client called the „Google Talk Labs Edition“ just threw the web edition of Google Talk into a Win32 WebKit box, complete with support for notifications. Google really started to neglect the native Windows client once this launched, making the Labs Edition—basically the web edition—the premiere version.
In 2008, Google Talk arrived on the iPhone via—who remembers this?—a mobile web app! While the iPhone launched in 2007, the native iPhone app store did not launch until later in 2008, and developers were limited to web apps made for Safari.
2008 also would mark Google’s first foray into video chat, first with Google Talk in Gmail and later in the main client. A side project from all this messaging research will be „Google is also terrible at video chat.“ While this video iteration wasn’t yet the group video chat solution that Google is still scrambling to get together in the coronavirus age, Google’s video chat ambitions actually started 12 years ago.
Google Talk’s voice and video chat required a browser plugin. It ran on technology from a company called „Global IP Solution (GIPS),“ which sold VoIP engines to companies like Google, AOL, Yahoo, Oracle, and WebEx. In 2010, Google decided it relied enough on the company and bought GIPS for $68 million. A year later, Google open-sourced GIPS’s technology and IP, giving birth to the WebRTC project. Today, WebRTC is the dominant VoIP technology and a W3C standard, allowing most web browsers to make a voice or video call with zero plugins.
Google Talk ran Android’s entire push notification system
By 2008, a little operating system called „Android“ came out of the Googleplex. BBM—Blackberry Messenger—had launched a few years earlier and was a valued feature of Blackberry phones, and so the Android Team became big fans of Google Talk, which it could use as a BBM fighter. The team shipped an original client along with Android 1.0 and added video chat support in 2011. Android didn’t just support Google Talk, though; it was actually a core feature of the operating system. Android’s entire cloud messaging system runs on XMPP, and, in the beginning at least, it was the same always-on Google connection as your Google Talk account. In fact, for a long time, Android’s background process for all push notifications and syncing was called „GTalkService.“
GTalkService ran communication for Android’s entire push notification system, meaning that even things like a new Gmail notification came blasting down an always-on chat session between you and Google. XMPP was a real-time, authenticated way to quickly pass messages back and forth, so Google built an OS-wide notification system around it. The early days of Android development were done at a break-neck pace to try to catch up to the iPhone, and messy decisions like merging push notifications with your in-house messaging service helped get there faster.
Google eventually opened up the push system to third parties, first with Android „Cloud to Device Messaging,“ then „Google Cloud Messaging,“ and then „Firebase Cloud Messaging.“ (If you haven’t noticed, Google likes to reboot and rename products.) The modern Firebase Cloud Messaging is actually still XMPP-based to this day, though. Of course, it has been separated from Google Talk now.
I am just going to go ahead and call GTalkService the early ancestor of Google Play Services. GTalkService wasn’t only used for notifications on Android—the cloud synchronization of Google account data also ran through the GTalkService, keeping things like your contacts and calendar events up to date. GTalkService was even used to install apps on Android. The co-founder of Duo Security, Jon Oberheide, has two fantastic writeups on GTalkService from 2010. As he explains, „When you click to install an app through the Android Market, Google pushes down an INSTALL_ASSET to your phone [over GtalkService] which causes it to fetch and install that application.“ You didn’t actually request the app package from the Android app store, they were pushed to your phone via Google Talk. (Did I mention early Android development was quick and dirty?)
The benefit of doing app install calls over push notifications is that you don’t actually have to be in front of your phone to install an app. Google surfaced this feature with the Android Market (now Play Store) website, where you could remotely install a phone app from your desktop web browser—it’s all the same push request. GTalkService even gives Google a nuclear option for malware. The company could remotely uninstall malicious apps from your phone, without your permission! Oberheide holds the distinction of being the first person to trigger a remote, mass uninstall after uploading a (harmless) malware proof-of-concept app to the Android Market in 2010. After unveiling its malware nuke to the world, Google warned: „While we hope to not have to use it, we know that we have the capability to take swift action on behalf of users’ safety when needed.“
The slow death of GTalk
After maybe 2009, not much happened with Google Talk. The Android team kept building mobile clients up until 2011, but it seemed like the original team lost interest in the service. This is how it always works with Google chat services. The ones that don’t get shut down eventually are abandoned and left to rot. Users get frustrated with the lack of continual development and old clients and slowly migrate to other services. Eventually, a new Google team comes along with plans to reboot everything.
The shutdown of Google Talk was a very slow transition, and with the plethora of clients, the merger with Google Hangouts, and third-party XMPP support, it’s hard to pick an exact time of death. But the beginning of the end for Google Talk was in 2013 with the release of the Hangouts chat service we know today. Hangouts wasn’t just another messaging app, it was a replacement for Google Talk, allowing you to carry your contacts and messages to the new service. Some clients, like the Android Google Talk app, got an in-place automatic upgrade to Google Hangouts, along with optional transitions and replacements for most clients. The first major client shutdown came two years later when the Google Talk Windows client officially stopped accepting logins on February 23, 2015.
If you really wanted to go down with the ship, the last gasp for Google Talk was surprisingly late: June 26, 2017. At that point, third-party XMPP connections to the Google Talk service stopped working, the Gmail web integration was forcefully transitioned to Hangouts, and (if you had somehow dodged Android app updates for four continuous years) the legacy Google Talk app also stopped working. Google Talk had long become irrelevant with the rise of Hangouts in 2013, but if you wanted to pick a final death date, June 2017 is it. RIP Google Talk.
Part of the reason for the lengthy shutdown is that it wasn’t just „Google Talk: the consumer chat service“ that Google was turning off. It was also „Google Talk: The back end XMPP Google service“ that Google needed to make sure kept running, which by now had wound its tendrils into several services. Google Talk needed to be killed without interrupting service for Firebase Cloud Messaging, which grew out of the XMPP project. Google Docs actually had a bit of a service interruption when Google Talk finally shut down in 2017, too. While it was never cross-compatible with Google Talk, it turns out those pop-up chat boxes were actually based on Google Talk originally. A GSuite blog post in 2017 mentioned that, because „Docs Editors chat functionality is built on Google Talk,“ work needed to be done to „decouple the feature from Talk“ when it shut down. G Suite organizations that didn’t get their transitional Google Talk and Google Hangouts settings correct would briefly lose chat functionality.
Google really doesn’t do product shutdowns like this anymore: shutdowns where you had a lengthy four-year shutdown period and not just a relatively smooth transition to a new service but a fully optional transition that lasted several years. Today, the company is simply a lot more ruthless about kicking users off a service and abandoning them.
Google Talk got a really long section in this history, but it deserves it. As Google’s first and one of its most successful instant messaging services, it set the blueprint for everything that followed. If you pay attention, you’ll see future Google messaging services poorly try to copy Google Talk’s homework, often with disastrous results. When you’re the OG Google chat service, you’re adding new features that didn’t exist before for Google users. When you’re everything that comes after Google Talk, people are just asking, „How is this better than Google Talk?“
Google Voice (2009)—SMS and Phone calls get a dose of the Internet
Lifetime: March 11, 2009—Present
Clients: web, Android, iPhone, Web OS, Blackberry
It only took 3.5 years after the launch of Google Talk for a second Google messaging service to appear, though it actually had a good argument for why it should exist alongside Google Talk. In March 2009, Google asked the question: „What if we rigged up the phone system to the Internet?“ and Google Voice was born. Instead of a landline phone number or a cell phone number, Google Voice gave users a Google phone number—with an area code and everything—that was device agnostic. Your phone calls could be forwarded to other phone numbers based on the time or contact, and your text messages were accessible via the web and various apps.
The best part of Google Voice is having a number that really feels like you own it. In the early days of Google Voice, carriers made number porting as annoying as possible, and switching cell providers could mean losing your carrier-owned phone number. With Google Voice, it didn’t matter. You could give everyone your Google Voice number, and switching services just meant adding a new forwarding number that you never told anyone about.
The origins of Google Voice actually started back in 2007 when Google acquired GrandCentral Communications. GrandCentral was where all of Google Voice’s phone call (as opposed to messaging) functionality came from. It offered a new phone number with forwarding to other lines and an audio-only voicemail box that was accessible over the Internet. There wasn’t any texting functionality, though.
With the launch of Google Voice, Google added a ton of features to GrandCentral, like SMS support, conference calling, and low-cost international calling. The Googliest feature was voicemail transcription, where Google’s voice recognition AI would (attempt to) transcribe your voicemail into easily scannable text. In the early days, it wasn’t super accurate, but Voicemail transcription was still better than the black box of a play button. There was usually enough wonky text information to figure out if the voicemail was important or not. Voicemail transcription was one of Google’s first voice recognition products, and in the early days, Google Voice’s „creative“ interpretations of voicemail audio gave rise to the meme of sharing failed and funny Google Voice transcript errors. Take a look; Google’s speech-to-text technology has come a long way.
We’re here for the texting part of Google Voice, though, and SMSes to your Google Voice number worked just like a texting app. These showed up anywhere you had the app installed or on the web instead of being siloed on your phone. Since Google Voice was SMS, there were basically no features. Even getting MMS support was a long-running battle: it first showed up for Sprint users (via email) in 2011, but proper MMS support on all carriers didn’t arrive until 2017. Voice was never a flashy service, but since Google Voice was SMS, it let you talk with anyone, and it let you pull your dumb cell phone number into the cloud where it could work on multiple devices.
Voice was seen as a threat to carriers at the time, so the service ruffled a few feathers when it came out. When Google submitted an official Google Voice app to Apple’s app store, Apple rejected Google’s app and removed a few third-party Google Voice apps it had previously approved. This move drew the ire of the FCC, and it questioned Apple’s exclusive carrier partner at the time (in the US): AT&T. With free VoIP calls, SMS, and voicemails, Google Voice was an obvious threat to AT&T, which previously had been against VoIP apps on the iPhone. AT&T told the FCC it was not involved, however. Google said Apple VP Phil Schiller personally blocked the app, saying Apple didn’t want apps that „duplicated the core dialer functionality of the iPhone.“ Apple said it had not, in fact, rejected the Google Voice app, and it was still „studying“ the app. The Google Voice iPhone app was initially submitted in June 2009, and by the time of the FCC inquiry, the Google Voice app had been delayed for two months. Apple must have been doing a marathon study session!
Apple’s „studying“ continued for the entirety of 2009, and by January 2010 Google had launched a Google Voice mobile web app for iPhone and Palm’s WebOS (may it rest in peace). Apple ruled over the App Store with an iron fist, but it couldn’t stop the Internet, and Apple users could point their browser at the Google Voice mobile site and make calls, view voicemail, or send SMS all through a web page. The downside was that the web couldn’t do notifications at the time, so Google Voice didn’t really work well for receiving SMSes or voicemails. It wasn’t until November 2010 that Apple finally finished its meticulous study session and let Google Voice into the app store.
Google Voice is the first item on our list that is actually still around; every day that Google Voice continues to exist feels like a surprise. The service has been hanging around for 11 years now and has spent most of its life in the „neglect“ stage of a Google messaging service. It often feels like Google Voice exists in a dusty closet at Google HQ somewhere, and the company forgets about it for years at a time.
Besides seeing its share of neglect, Google Voice has also seen its share of shutdowns. Google Voice used to have a range of third-party apps, but Google killed them all in a single swing one day in 2014. The company declared that any third-party apps that worked with Google Voice phone calls or SMS—which, by the way, had been operating for years—were „unauthorized,“ „a threat to your security,“ and „violating the terms of service.“ Google didn’t want to allow third-party Voice apps but also didn’t want to develop the first-party app itself, so it left users stuck with the crappy, neglected app.
We’ve already talked about how Google Talk and the Android push notifications were built around XMPP, but would you believe Google Voice at one point also used XMPP? XMPP was used to connect calls, and with this open standard, users could rig up landline phones to work directly over the Google Voice system, making it a VoIP provider. You’d also get free voice calls. XMPP support was shut down in 2018, but it sounds like it was replaced with some kind of closed-off solution that can be licensed by some companies. Polycom, for instance, still makes Google Voice FXO VoIP Gateways.
Google Voice has seen a resurgence starting around the launch of Google Fi in 2015, which merged the Google Voice feature set with an MVNO service. The two services were so similar at launch that you couldn’t even have both a Google Fi number and a Google Voice number—you had to port your Voice number to Google Fi. Since then we’ve seen a renewed commitment to Google Voice from Google, with revamped apps launching in 2017. Google Voice became a part of GSuite in 2018 and got mobile VoIP calls in 2019.
Google Wave (2009)—An email killer from the future
Lifetime: May 28, 2009—January 31, 2012 (2 years, 8 months but declared dead August 4, 2010)
Platforms: The web
I personally believe that Google Wave does not belong on a list of messaging apps, but every time I leave it out of a messaging app discussion I inevitably get comments saying, „I can’t believe you forgot Google Wave!“ To stop those, it’s this exercise’s policy to cast a wide net and cover borderline products, at the very least so we can formally define them as „not a messaging app.“ Thus, Wave makes the cut.
For the record: Google Wave was email, not a messaging app. It wasn’t really used for one-to-one communication, and at no point was it possible to deliver notifications to a phone. At Google I/O 2009, Google introduced Wave to the world specifically as an email alternative, with co-creator Lars Rasmussen saying „Email was invented over 40 years ago…what might email look like if it was invented today?“ At no point was Wave out to replace Google Talk.
On the desktop, Wave had three main columns: a navigation and contact column on the right, an inbox in the middle, and a message view on the right. Like email, Wave would let you create message threads, and users could reply to either an entire group or a single person. Because Wave was hosted content and not email text that was copied to local computers, contact selection worked more like a modern permission system or chat room. You could grant or remove access to Wave threads by adding or removing people.
Wave was the first Google product to do real-time, letter-by-letter communication. The service would instantly send each keystroke across the Internet, and it would show up on another person’s screen, all through the magic of HTML5. Active Wave threads looked alive, with replies popping up, and images being uploaded in real time, letter by letter, without refreshing the page. Wave even had a feature called „Playback“ where the entire Wave creation process could be played back (in chunks) from scratch.
The live typing, letter-by-letter technology was eventually brought to Google Docs, which is where most people encounter this sensation today. The Wave team actually demoed collaborative document creation in a Wave, complete with in-line comments. Wave’s input system was really the basis for the modern version of Google Docs, and the entire document system was deemed good enough to be ported over.
Wave was created by Lars and Jens Rasmussen, the same pair of brothers who brought the world Google Maps. In the same way that Google Maps‘ live, scrollable map was a revolution for browsers at the time, Wave’s live typing and other app-like features were cutting-edge stuff at the time (though an app called EtherPad, which Google later acquired, cracked live typing first). The I/O 2009 intro to Wave felt like it was from another era. „[Wave] is an unbelievable, powerful demonstration of what is possible in the browser,“ Engineering VP Vic Gundotra told the crowd. „Over the next hour and a half, as you see this product, you. will. forget. that you are looking at the browser. I want you to repeat after me: I am looking at an HTML5 app. I am looking at what’s possible in the browser.“ Hearing this again is wild. Remember when browser apps sucked?
Another „you can do that in a browser?!“ feature of Wave was the ability to upload photos with drag-and-drop, just like in a native app. This was the one ability of Wave that wasn’t purely HTML5 wizardry. It required the installation of Google Gears, Google’s browser API shim, at launch. Google said it was working to make drag and drop from the desktop part of the browser standard, and the feature eventually made it into Chrome in 2010.
While Google Wave was the first implementation of Wave, Google did not try to make itself the center of Wave or to build a walled garden. Wave was open source, and like Google Talk, Google imagined Wave as a federated platform where users on different clients and service providers could still talk to each other. The Wave Federation Protocol happened over—wait for it—XMPP, with the extra Wave bits implemented as an open extension to the XMPP core.
Wave had a heavy branch of features dedicated to APIs and bots. Waves could be embedded in blogger webpages, allowing for live edits and additions to show up on a normal web page. Wave communicated this by adding a „Blogger“ bot to a Wave, letting everyone know the information was public and keeping the embedded Wave in sync (letter by letter, in real time) with the main Wave. Some bots could do things like import tweets into a Wave or play games or do real-time translation.
I can see the confusion people have in calling Wave a messaging app. Email and messaging are both just text, so a real-time email app is just as „instant“ as an instant messaging app. The difference is in the interface, though. Wave was always a big, heavy, inbox-driven app that you were supposed to live in, making it very email-like. Wave never got any mobile apps and only supported a single platform: the browser. That meant there was a mobile version of the site, but especially in 2009, this was an awful experience. Even if you wanted to use Wave as a messaging service, without an app, you wouldn’t be able to make your phone beep about an incoming message. Therefore, it has to be disqualified from being deemed „messaging.“
Nobody knew what Wave was for or how to use it
Google announced the death of Wave on August 4, 2010, just 15 months after the service was announced. Google said flatly, „Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked.“ Wave became read-only on January 31, 2012, and all Wave content was deleted in April 2012. As an open source project, Wave was supposed to live on at the Apache Software Foundation, but the project never produced an official release, and it was retired in 2018.
A big contributor to Wave’s death was the lack of a network effect. Wave could only be used to communicate with other users on Wave, so you get the catch-22 of people only wanting to use Wave if people already used Wave. Exacerbating this problem was the fact that Google hamstrung the initial Wave userbase with an invite system, so even interested users couldn’t try out the service immediately. (Admittedly, a load of users firing up the all-live, all-the-time app was probably a scary proposition for Google’s network engineers.) Wave went a whole year before removing the invite system, which, for a collaborative communication app, seriously limited its viability. On May 26, 2010 (Google I/O 2010), Wave’s invite system was dropped, and it was open to the public. But by then, the hype was gone and no one cared. Wave lasted an incredible 70 days as a public service before Google announced it was dead.
Live, letter-by-letter typing is an interesting communication method, and if you’ve never tried, fire up Google Docs with a friend and give the document text a shot as a communication platform. For good typists, it’s a faster, more fluid form of communication that’s kind of fun. For less confident typers, live typing turns keyboard input into a high-pressure performative act with a live audience, and you can see how it would turn off some people. The lack of any kind of draft mode meant you didn’t have a free second to compose your thoughts into text or think about what you wanted to type—every letter was immediately broadcast onto the Internet, showing the world your typing speed and error rate. Google is a place full of tech-savvy computer nerds, and sometimes a group like that, building a product in a bubble, completely whiffs on the emotional human element of a messaging app or social network. This was one of those times.
Wave policy of „always live update everything, all the time“ can lead to a Wave inbox being pretty overwhelming when it is active and popular. Martin Seibert made the above video for a Techcrunch article showing just how bad it can get. Being live means the inbox just constantly jumps around as new messages load in, making it difficult to even read a thread subject before it disappears. When popular, Wave was a completely unmanageable mess where you’d never hit Inbox zero.
When Wave was still active, there was a ton of talk about federation, bots, and APIs. Users constantly hoped that someone, Google or a third party, would make Wave interoperable with any other service, like Google Talk or email. That approach would solve the problem of Wave only being useful when talking to Wave users. If Wave hooked up to another service, Wave could be useful for the individual user no matter what, and Wave features could be added any time two Wave users were communicating with each other. Google Voice did a great job of this with the phone system by adding extra features to SMS, Voicemails, and phone calls. A solid connection to an established communication network never materialized, though, so Wave never had a solid userbase.
In the peak social media days, everyone was on Facebook because everyone was on Facebook. In this case, nobody used Wave because nobody used Wave. From here on out, the network effect would forever be a huge problem for Google messaging services. Some future projects took note of this and tried to juice the initial network—in some successful and, uh, extremely unsuccessful ways. Speaking of which…
Google Buzz (2010)—The non-consensual social network
Lifetime: February 9, 2010—December 15, 2011 (1 year, 10 months)
Platforms: Desktop Gmail, mobile web apps for Android and iOS.
Where do you even start with Google Buzz, one of Google’s most notorious products? Remember that in 2005, Google Talk found a major shortcut to a big user base when it was integrated into Gmail. So, surely, the same strategy would work for Google’s social network aspirations, right? In early 2010, the Google Buzz social network launched, not as a standalone service but as a Gmail sidebar component just like Google Talk. Oh yeah, it also started automatically following and sharing stuff with your frequent email contacts without really asking users if that was OK. What followed was a whirlwind of controversy, complaints, and lawsuits, and it’s kind of astounding how most of the Google Buzz saga took place over just four days.
Google built a basic social networking app with a scrolling list of posts and replies—it was basically identical to Facebook or Twitter, but in Gmail. Follow a person. Post some text. Add a picture. Press the „like“ button. The basics were wholly unoriginal other than the fact that it was invading your email inbox.
Every single design decision made for Google Buzz can be framed as „fixing the network effect.“ Remember how Wave died because nobody used Wave? That was not going to happen with Google Buzz. Shoving the product into Gmail would quickly get it a big user base of its own. Buzz was also pitched as a „social aggregator“ and could pull in posts from other services, so even if none of your friends were on Buzz, you could still use Buzz and see their content. Buzz would pull in posts from Twitter, photos from Picasa and Flickr, or (brace yourself for sadness) articles you liked on Google Reader.
Buzz’s critical mistake was how the initial setup worked. It was totally automatic—Buzz built your social graph for you by automatically adding frequent contacts from Google Talk and Gmail. You would automatically follow them and they would automatically follow you, all without the input of a human on either end. It also automatically connected Google Reader and Google Picasa data and instantly associated any public content with your Buzz profile. From there, the service shoved all that in front of any „friends“ it detected.
Google’s day-one blog post for Google Buzz is worth a read just to get an idea of what an astoundingly out-of-touch, non-consensual nightmare the Google Buzz rollout was. „Buzz is built right into Gmail, so there’s nothing to set up,“ the blog post reads. „You’re automatically following the people you email and chat with the most.“ Buzz was also going to spam the hell out of your inbox unless you found a way to stop it: „To make sure you don’t miss out on the best part of sharing, Buzz sends responses to your posts straight to your inbox. Unlike static email messages, Buzz messages in your inbox are live conversations where comments appear in real-time.“ Google just decided to turn your email client into a social media network, and it hoped you were OK with that. Nobody was.
Buzz never got a standalone website, and it never got any mobile apps. It did get a mobile website for Android and iOS, via a coveted link on the mobile Google.com search page. Android 2.0 also integrated a Google Buzz home screen widget and Google Maps added a „buzz about this place“ button in location listings. Besides the expected mobile browsing of, uh, buzzes, mobile Buzz was also a Foursquare and Dodgeball clone, letting you tag posts with a location.
Google Buzz’s automatic setup exposed a ton of data about people without really properly informing them or getting their consent. Like most social networks, who your friends are following was public information on Buzz, but since this was created automatically from contacts, Buzz exposed everyone’s frequent email contacts to the world. Your Buzz username was also your email address, so that was automatically exposed to the world, too. If you used the Foursquare-like location sharing, then your location would be broadcasted to any „nearby“ Buzz users—not just your friends.
Buzz used a lot of the same predatory privacy tactics as Facebook, where, sure, there were technically controls for all this stuff somewhere, but they were purposefully deemphasized to trick users into making everything public. Buzz made users opt-out of exposing sensitive information, instead of having them opt-in to sharing. Users who didn’t carefully comb every square inch of the screen for the low-contrast fine print didn’t understand what they were exposing, and they felt betrayed after realizing what was shared with their contacts.
By day two, Google still wasn’t in touch with the reality of what it had done. A new blog post touted how proud Google was of all the (forced) usage Google Buzz was getting. „It’s been just two days since we first launched Google Buzz. Since then, tens of millions of people have checked Buzz out, creating over 9 million posts and comments,“ the post stated. „Plus, we’re seeing over 200 posts per minute from mobile phones around the world.“ If you’re a bean-counting, spreadsheet-obsessed, emotionless robot, this probably sounds like a success. The problem was, no normal human liked this, and most of these posts were complaints. Google’s day-two blog post gave a minor nod to some privacy concerns people had raised, but the damage was already done.
The rest of the world had turned against Buzz by day two, and the consumer revolt was incredible. Buzz was called a „privacy nightmare“ in the press. In one viral post, a woman recounted how Google Buzz’s algorithms decided it was a good idea to automatically reconnect her with her abusive ex-husband and threatened her safety.
By day four, Google finally gave up and posted an apology on its official blog. „We quickly realized that we didn’t get everything quite right,“ the company said. „We’re very sorry for the concern we’ve caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback.“ These „improvements“ involved stripping back Buzz’s automatic setup process and turning „automatic following“ into a „suggested contacts“ list. The company added better blocking controls for unwanted followers and stopped auto-connecting Picasa photos and Reader articles. It also added the option to turn off Google Buzz in the Gmail settings, finally providing an opt-out for Buzz entirely.
As far as much of the public was concerned, the entire life and death of Google Buzz occurred these first four days. Buzz launched, it messed up everyone’s Gmail for a few days, and everyone scrambled to turn it off and clean up the mess Google had made. Buzz was never anything special in terms of the actual product, and the stigma of the initial launch and the out-of-place Gmail integration made most people ignore it or turn it off.
Beyond week one, Buzz’s lasting legacy centers on lawsuits and legal action. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy watchdog and public interest research group, filed an FTC complaint over Buzz’s privacy violations. After an investigation, Google settled with the FTC, committing to maintaining a „comprehensive privacy program“ for 20 years. A class-action lawsuit was filed that eventually saw Google settle for $8.5 million. Google Buzz even earned international condemnation, with government officials from 10 countries sending Google an open letter telling it to drop its „launch now, fix later“ policy.
Buzz feels like something that was generated entirely by an algorithm. Any normally functioning human would understand that there is a difference between email and social media and what those two things are used for. Email is often an obligatory, formal, and official form of communication with people and companies; social media is for fun (theoretically). There are tons of accounts you would communicate with over email that you would never want to see on social media, and vice versa, yet no one at Google realized this during the making of Google Buzz.
Buzz’s death was announced unceremoniously as the second bullet point in one of Google’s infamous „spring cleaning“ posts on October 14, 2011. At this point, absolutely nobody cared, since all of Google’s social attention had been on its new baby, Google+ (that had launched four months earlier). Google announced Buzz would be shut down in „a few weeks“ and that it „learned a lot from products like Buzz, and are putting that learning to work every day in our vision for products like Google+.“ I can’t find any reports of the actual Google Buzz shutdown date, but the Wikipedia entry has a completely unsourced date of December 15. If accurate, that would mean the product lasted one year and one month. Really, though, Google Buzz was four days of terror and then it died.
Slide’s Disco (2011)—An independent app escapes the Googleplex
Lifetime: March 24, 2011 to October 11, 2012 (1 year, 6 months)
Platforms: iOS, Android, the web
Is this one new for you? This one is new for me. Once upon a time, there was a company called „Slide, Inc.“ It was founded in 2004 by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, and this company was the maintainer of the super-popular Facebook games Superpoke and Superpoke Pets. One day, Google—probably as part of its panic over the rise of Facebook—bought Slide. Slide had an incredible run at Google. Google announced it purchased the company on August 6, 2010, for $182 million, and then Google announced it was killing the company August 26, 2011. During those 387 days of operating under Google, Slide did the obvious thing and made a messaging app.
It was called „Disco.“
To start, it was only for iOS and only worked in the US. I feel like this app is mostly lost to time, due to only being alive for a year and mostly having a low profile during that time. The best report I can find is from Business Insider, which, in a wonderful time capsule, describes the app as „another one of those group texting apps everyone keeps talking about.“ Group messaging was apparently novel enough at the time for this kind of commentary. BI continued: „Disco is late to the game and already a bit behind in the features other group messaging apps have“ and compared it unfavorably to GroupMe, which launched a year earlier.
Group chat is not actually supported by SMS (that’s MMS, and it was not well supported at the time), but Disco did its best to turn single-target SMS into a group chat anyway. You could create a new group with the Disco app, which would generate a new phone number for the group. You and your group chat cohorts would all send their messages to this one Disco number, and Disco forward the messages to everyone else, prepended with their contact name. The Disco app didn’t actually do much. It was used for managing groups, and users could add a group number to your contacts. After that, all the actual texting happened in the iPhone SMS app. I’m going to guess this wasn’t an over-the-top messaging service for political reasons. Like we covered with Google Voice, AT&T and Apple would not have liked any service that „duplicated functionality.“ Disco still counted against your carrier’s SMS billing, though, so everyone was happy.
There wasn’t much more to Disco than this. That Business Insider report actually criticized Disco for a lack of features like „location sharing or group calling.“ Digging through the site’s Archive.org history reveals that eventually there was an Android app, and at one point you could even send messages to Disco from the web at disco.com.
Slide and Disco are both things you can add to Google+’s considerable body count. The initial blog post title, „Google and Slide: building a more social web,“ should tell you all you need to know about what happened to Slide at Google. Google+ was launching in about a year, and like all competing Google projects, Slide needed to be ground up and fed to the new social beast.
The Google+ Era (2011)—Google’s social panic
Looking back, it’s almost hard to recall the deranged fever dream that was the Google+ era. Social media was a serious fad in 2011, and after the failure of Orkut, Jaiku, and Google Buzz, Google didn’t have a social horse to bet on. Facebook had a stated goal of signing up every single human on the planet, and while it seems ridiculous today, Google saw Facebook as an existential threat. The thought was something along the lines of, „What if people ask their social graph instead of doing a Google search?“ as if asking a gaggle of people from high school was somehow equivalent to doing actual research. (Don’t do this. That’s how you get anti-vaxxers.)
Google went into a complete panic over its lack of social platform, and on June 28, 2011, Google+ was born. In addition to a regular Facebook-style social networking site, Google+ was a hyper-aggressive, all-consuming social backbone that would run through most major Google services. If users wouldn’t voluntarily use a Google social service, Google would make all of its services into a social service. The best quote showing how intense this was going to get came from Google executive Steve Grove, who dropped this doozy of a line: „Google+ is kind of like the next version of Google.“
The motivation for Google+ came directly from the top. Earlier in 2011, then-CEO Larry Page tied all employee bonuses to the success of Google+. Very little at Google is done via a top-down directive like this, making Google+ one of Google’s only products that seemed like a unified effort. Google’s typical lack of unity is why you see so many messaging apps. Android’s SMS app is handled by the Android team, and they don’t really need to talk to anyone else. Google Voice was an acquisition and created its own team. Wave was a new project started by the Google Maps founders. Google Buzz was from the Gmail team.
Some companies with strong leadership can move toward a singular goal as a big unit, but with Google, working together was such a foreign concept that management had to bribe every individual employee with this bonus plan. I maintain that this is the only time Google has done something together as a company. The rest of the time, it’s individual teams making autonomous decisions.
The core Google+ site was a pretty basic, Facebook-style social networking app, with posts, comments, and „+1″s instead of likes. The one big innovation was the concept of „Circles,“ Google+’s group-sharing mechanic. Instead of everyone being a „friend“ like on Facebook, Google+ had users build several social circle lists, so you could have lists like „Co-workers,“ „Close friends,“ and „Family“ and choose to share various things with each of them since each post had a checkbox sharing UI. This seems like a direct reaction to the outcry of Google Buzz, which shared everything with everybody. For Google+, Google said, „You want sharing options? Here are all the options you could want!“
Google learned very little from Google Buzz when it came to shoving social services inside established apps, though. Over the next few years, Google+ would be built into nearly every Google product. A top navigation banner across Google’s suite of services included your Google+ profile and a live notification count. Google Search results integrated Google+ content, mixing in private data with public search results and letting users „+1“ sites. For some period of time, you couldn’t make a new Gmail account without also making a Google+ profile. Gmail showed Google+ profiles associated with each email sender. The Google Play Store required a Google+ account to leave a review. YouTube required a Google+ account to leave a comment. Android used Google+ for photo backup and contact retrieval. Google Maps integrated reviews and photos from Google+ directly into business pages, and Google Latitude, Google Maps‘ location-sharing service, was killed in favor of Google+ location sharing.
Google+’s greatest sin was the murder of Google Reader, a beloved RSS reader that some people still mourn to this day. Shortly after the service’s death in 2013, Reader’s ex-product manager revealed the team was borged into the Google+ collective sometime in 2010, which led to Reader’s death.
Google+ wasn’t all bad, though. It launched with „instant uploads“ for photos, leading to what would eventually become Google Photos, one of Google’s best new(ish) products.
Google+ Hangouts video chat—The first Hangouts
Besides the social network and borging everything into the Google+ collective, the service’s 2011 launch included a group video chat platform called „Google+ Hangouts.“ Note that this is completely unrelated to the „Google Hangouts“ chat service that would launch in 2013—it was just video chat.
Hangouts video chat had a novel interface that would show thumbnails of users at the bottom of the screen, and it automatically switched the main view to whoever was talking at the time. There was a text chat on the side and a few face-tracking special effects. You could even watch YouTube videos as a group.
While Google+ was not always looked on favorably, Google+ Hangouts was a big hit. Lifehacker called it, „The best free group video chat we’ve seen.“ In 2012, Google added a feature called „Hangouts on air,“ which would broadcast your group conversation on YouTube, basically making it the defacto standard for group conversation podcasts. Broadcasting a group video chat over YouTube was a great collaboration between Google services, so naturally, Google killed the feature in 2019 and never really launched a replacement.
Google+ Hangouts launched with 480p video only, and it needed a browser plugin to work—the same plugin used for Google Talk. In 2013, Hangouts video chat turned on HD 720p video chat when it switched from H.264 to Google’s open source video codec, VP8. In 2014, Google switched over to WebRTC, the „RealTime Communication“ standard for browsers, allowing Google Hangouts to do video chat without a plugin.
Google+ Huddle/Messenger—I guess we should have some kind of DM function
Lifetime: June 28, 2011—August 14, 2013 (2 years, 1 month)
Clients: Android and iOS
Google+’s very first messaging service was „Google Huddle,“ a name that almost no one remembers. That’s because Google Huddle launched with G+ in June 2011, but this service became „Google+ Messenger“ by September 2011. Apparently, there used to be a startup called Huddle that owned the global trademark, and Google quickly agreed to change the name. Whoops.
Google+ Huddle Messenger was an exclusively mobile group messaging service. Google+ always had a „mobile-first“ design, but for some reason, for Google+ Messenger, „mobile-first“ got turned into „mobile-only.“ This was a constant source of frustration for users. Messenger was just the world’s most basic group texting app, and you could invite anyone in your Google+ circles to join.
The service got a front-page promotion on the Google+ Android and iOS apps, but other than that, it never really went anywhere. You could send text—and only text—to a group… and that was it. It made sense to be able to DM people on Google+, but did it make sense for that app to be the totally siloed Google+ Messenger mobile app? Not really. Messenger always felt like an afterthought, and after two years of zero improvements, the feature was killed on August 14, 2013.
A competitor emerges—iMessage has entered the chat
Lifetime: October 12, 2011-Present
Clients: iOS, macOS, WatchOS
And now, a brief history of Apple Messaging services: iMessage. End of article.
Apple launched iMessage along with iOS 5 in October 2011 and brought iMessage to the Mac with the release of OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion the next year. Apple did not release a second, competing messaging app 18 months after the launch of iMessage. In fact, Apple has never launched a competing messaging app in the nine years this service has been around. The full power of the company is behind iMessage with no other distractions.
iMessage quickly became the template for what users wanted from a Google Messaging system. Apple’s service was the SMS client on iOS, but it also pushed people over to the enhanced iMessage service whenever possible. Therefore you could use iMessage to communicate with everyone, no matter what. As Apple was fond of saying at the time: it just worked. iMessage messages synced to your Mac, and eventually, SMS forwarding arrived in 2014, so I guess you can say that’s when the service fully powered-up.
We’ll later see Google acquiesce to the wishes of carriers and put SMS on a pedestal, but Apple was the polar opposite. Cupertino couldn’t care less about the feelings of AT&T et al. Carriers were apparently blindsided by the announcement of iMessage and Apple’s commandeering of SMS. I think it’s funny that this happened the same year AT&T’s iPhone exclusivity ended and Verizon finally got to launch an iPhone. I like to imagine Apple said something like, „Hey carriers, multiple partners means you are all now considerably less valuable to Apple! We’re going to kill SMS. If you don’t like it, there’s the door.“ The truth, though, is that Apple didn’t even feel the carriers were important enough to communicate with them.
We’re not covering the full history of iMessage, but naturally having the full weight of Apple behind the service makes it a very competitive messaging app. It has group chat, end-to-end encryption (for iMessage messages), voice messages, FaceTime video calls, and a million other features.
The big downside to iMessage is that it only works on Apple products, and there’s no website, which is pretty limiting compared to the usual „works with everything“ client smorgasbord from (good) Google products. Just like BBM, Apple views this as a type of lock-in, though. Apple is a hardware company, and you’re supposed to only buy Apple products. This also means Apple sees iMessage as a solvent business since more lock-in means more hardware sales.
The hardware lock-in limits the install base iMessage can have, though, since not everyone wants or can afford Apple hardware. The result is that while iMessage is great, you won’t see it on a „most popular messaging services“ list.
One more competitor—WhatsApp is now worth $22 billion
By 2012, WhatsApp had become one of the world’s most popular messaging apps and was announcing explosive metrics like 10x more messages per day than it had seen the year before. The app doesn’t have much of a presence in the US, but it is extremely popular in India, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. In late 2012, rumors started swirling that the then-independent company was taking acquisition bids. The first bit of smoke was from a TechCrunch report in December 2012, saying that Facebook was sniffing around. WhatsApp shot the rumor down publicly, calling it „not factually accurate.“ Next up was an April 2013 report from DigitalTrends saying Google was negotiating a WhatsApp buyout for $1 billion. WhatsApp shot down this report, too.
It’s hard to believe any of WhatsApp’s denials since just a year later, the company really did end up selling—to Facebook—for a deal that ended up being valued at $22 billion. There was apparently a bidding war going on, and, according to a report from Fortune, Google tapped out at $10 billion. Google’s $10 billion bid would have been the company’s second-largest acquisition ever, after Motorola. Instead, Facebook’s valuation of the messaging market was in a completely different league from Google’s, and it turned the deal into one of the biggest tech acquisitions ever.
WhatsApp was a company that was only five years old at the time and had only 50 employees, yet it ran rings around Google’s messaging efforts (which is a truly embarrassing situation). It’s the perfect example of how harmful Google’s lack of focus can be. From 2009 to 2014, WhatsApp built a messaging app worth $22 billion that boasted 450 million users. From 2009 to 2014, Google launched five different messaging apps.
Pre-Facebook acquisition, WhatsApp also answered the question of, „How do you make money with a messaging service?“ WhatsApp made money through the innovative scheme of charging money—it cost $1 to sign up and $1 a year going forward. WhatsApp originally did this to slow user growth to a manageable amount and cover the cost of sending initial SMS sign-up texts. The founders were apparently shocked to see that $1 didn’t hurt people’s appetite for the app, and it just remained a paid app.
If Google had spent the money to buy WhatsApp, today it would probably be a messaging powerhouse. Instead, the messaging rich got richer, and Facebook was able to control the WhatsApp user base along with its already popular Facebook Messenger service. I think most observers would say Facebook understands social networks and messaging more than Google could ever dream of, and it’s interesting that Facebook treats messaging as a pillar of the company. It’s something the company is willing to spend tens of billions of dollars on, while Google is content to let messaging languish as a series of unstable side projects.
We recently got an amazing bit of commentary on this series of events from Apple, which ended up having some of its internal communication aired out in public thanks to the Epic Games case against the company. When the first „Google’s buying WhatsApp!“ rumors started swirling, Apple’s SVP of Internet Software and Services, Eddy Cue, started pitching the idea of a response to what he saw as a formidable Google/WhatsApp combination. Cue asked the other Apple execs, „Do we want to lose one of the most important apps in a mobile environment to Google?“
Hearing a high-ranking Apple exec call messaging „one of the most important apps“ is, again, strikingly different compared to how Google normally runs messaging. At any point in the last 15 years, messaging has almost always been a complete afterthought in the company’s lineup. Cue wanted to respond to Google/WhatsApp by going really hard and bringing iMessage to Android instead of keeping it the Apple-ecosystem exclusive it is today. Other execs were skeptical of the move, and the plan never happened, but it shows again how Google buying WhatsApp could have been a major turning point for the industry.
Cue (and Facebook) were definitely right about the future of WhatsApp. WhatsApp had 450 million monthly active users at the time of the Facebook purchase, and today the app has grown to over 2 billion users. Google has released another five messaging apps in that amount of time and still doesn’t have a stable or successful messaging platform.
Google Docs Editor Chat (2013)—Just like Gmail chat, but not integrated with anything
Lifetime: June 6, 2006 (Sheets)/April 25, 2013 (Docs and Slides)-Present
Clients: Desktop web only
Let’s take a minor detour from the major messaging apps to talk about Google Docs. Google Docs/Sheets/Slides is a great online tool for collaborating on a document. And often when you’re collectively writing or editing something, you want to have a discussion about it. For that, the Google Docs Editors have a very handy integrated chat service.
Google Docs and Slides got a siloed chat feature in 2013, but if you want to get really technical, Sheets first had chat at launch, all the way back in June 2006, when it was „Google Spreadsheets Labs.“ The other Google office suite app would be more reliant on an in-line comment system for communication at first (does that count as a messaging service?), though, and it wouldn’t get a similar chat feature until seven years later.
This 2013 version of the Google Docs editor chat looked and worked just like Google Talk in Gmail. It actually was Google Talk under the hood, but somehow this wasn’t integrated with Google Talk. Google Docs throws everyone looking at a document into a single group chat, and combined with the fact that some documents could be public, maybe that didn’t jibe with Google Talk’s contact security model.
If Google could have made everything work, Gmail’s use of a real chat service still seems like a more convenient solution. While Google Talk works everywhere and will pop up on your phone, Google Docs Chat is awkwardly only available through the desktop web app, which means you’ll only get a message if you are sitting in front of a computer with that specific document open. I am always first invited to look at a Google Doc through a real messaging service, like Hangouts, and then at some point we have to awkwardly stop talking on Hangouts and start talking to Google Docs just to get the convenience of having everything in a single window. If I leave early and someone asks a late question, that question doesn’t arrive if it’s asked through Google Docs. The weird thing about Docs and Gmail is that the interfaces are nearly identical—pop-up chat boxes that you can type in—but Gmail’s is so much more reliable and convenient thanks to being plugged into a real chat service.
Like we discussed in the Google Talk section, thanks to sharing some back-end functionality with Google Talk, the 2017 shutdown of Google Talk disrupted Docs chat for a bit while it switched to Hangouts. What’s crazy about that timeline is that Google Docs and Slides implemented Chat in 2013, one month before Google Hangouts launched. This capped off months of rumors about Google’s new chat service, so surely the Google Docs team knew Talk was on the way out. Yet, it launched the feature based on Talk technology anyway. Skate to where the puck is going, people!
Google Hangouts (2013)—Google’s greatest messaging service
Lifetime: May 15, 2013 to Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, the web, web Gmail, Windows, Mac, Linux, Chrome OS, Android Wear, Google Glass
Circa 2013, Google was running into a problem—way too many messaging apps. If you were a Google user and wanted to message someone, you could IM them on Google Talk, send an SMS from Android’s texting app, send them an SMS through Google Voice, or fire up Google+ Messenger. Google’s plan to solve the problem of four messaging apps was… to develop a fifth messaging app.
This messaging app would eventually be a great unifier, though. Rumors of Google’s super messaging platform started as early as 2012, with one Google product manager admitting to the media Google was doing „an incredibly poor job“ meeting the needs of messaging users (you don’t say?). By 2013, rumors of an IM project codenamed „Babel“ were regularly popping up, promising a unified Google messaging solution.
At Google I/O 2013, Google announced that Hangouts would turn from a video app into a full-blown messaging service. During the presentation, Google pitched an idea that some messaging services still can’t offer: a client that can do text, photos, and video chat, across all devices, on any OS. On day one, Hangouts was everywhere. There were clients on Android, iOS, and on any desktop via the Gmail website or a standalone Chrome extension (which was indistinguishable from a native app). That last bit worked on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Chrome OS.
Hangouts‘ default list view showed conversations instead of people, mixing in one-to-one chats with group chats. Any photos shared to a room would be saved in a Google+ Photos album, and text history is saved forever (if you want) in Gmail and synced across devices. Hangouts‘ G+ integration meant you could add entire circles to your group chats or add people through a simple checkbox UI. Google Talk pre-dated the invention of Unicode-standard emojis, so Hangouts was Google’s first messaging service to ship with a comprehensive set of the little glyphs. There were read receipts and animated typing indicators, and since this was based on Google Hangouts the video chat app, a single button push could drop everyone into a group video call.
Google Hangouts replaced Google Talk, and the existing user base got an in-place upgrade, a move that should be a benchmark for how serious Google is about any given messaging app. In the future, a thousand Google Messaging apps will rise and fall after the launch of Hangouts, but only one, Google Chat, will be deemed worthy enough to inherit this user base. The desktop version of Gmail swapped out the Google Talk sidebar for a Hangouts sidebar, which was functionally very similar. On Android, Hangouts shipped as an upgrade to Google Talk, and to this day it has the same package name as Google Talk: com.google.android.talk.
The in-place upgrade strategy led to a huge overnight explosion of Google Hangouts users. Android would pass 1 billion activations in a few months, and Google Talk was a preinstalled app since the beginning. All of those still-active Android users would become Google Hangouts users once they checked for app updates. A year earlier, Google announced Gmail was the world’s biggest email service, with 425 million active users. Now all of these people were on Hangouts.
Hangouts also started the death of XMPP messaging for Google’s biggest messaging service. All the federation work that Google started with Google Talk wasn’t making the jump to Hangouts. XMPP clients like Adium and Pidgin could still connect to Hangouts, but they would have to do it with Google credentials. Non-Google users wouldn’t be able to connect to the Hangouts service through a federated server the way they could with Google Talk. Even with Google credentials, XMPP clients on Hangouts were second-class citizens and didn’t get access to many features.
On day one, Hangouts was a bit of a disappointment. Those hoping for a unifying Google messaging service, like the rumors promised, didn’t get one. We started with four services—Google Talk, Android SMS, Google+ Messenger, and Google Voice. And in the immediate aftermath of the Hangouts launch, there were still four services—Hangouts, Android SMS, Google+ Messenger, and Google Voice. Nothing was actually unified. There were also a few missing features compared to Google Talk, like the lack of audio calls and presence indicators. This is the minimum viable product launch strategy in action, and the disappointment is standard. A lot of Google services never recover from the initial negative reaction, but Hangouts did.
The key to overcoming MVP disappointment is to rapidly ship updates, and Hangouts did that. Three months after launch, in August 2013, Google+ Messenger was killed, and the company was down to three messaging apps. October 2013 brought the long-anticipated Hangouts SMS integration on Android. Users could register Hangouts as the default SMS app, finally giving Android users an equivalent to Apple’s iMessage on iOS. That month also brought the release of Android 4.4 KitKat, where there was no default „SMS“ app for Android anymore, there was only Hangouts (so if counting, we’re down to two apps). Google finally delivered on the full promise of Hangouts when, by late 2014 around a year and a half after launch, Hangouts finally added Google Voice support. These features all arrived slower than any Hangouts user would like, but finally, there was one Google messaging app to rule them all.
At this point in 2015, Google Hangouts was at the height of its powers. To date, it’s still the greatest messaging service Google has ever produced. It worked on every platform. It pulled in SMS, Google Voice, and regular Hangouts messages. They were all stored in a seamless, merged history of messages from each contact, and you could switch message delivery systems via an easy drop-down menu. It had most of the features you could want, like video calls and location sharing. And accordingly, by June 2015, the app hit a billion downloads, just on Android. A dedicated Hangouts website, hangouts.google.com, would launch in August.
The death of Hangouts, unified Google messaging, and hope
Hangouts‘ reign as Google’s unified messaging service held together for about one year, basically the entirety of 2015. By the end of December, Google couldn’t help itself and there was already talk of a new Google messaging service that was gearing up to launch, but this time with chatbots (this would eventually be Google Allo). Also in 2015, Hangouts development was already going slower than people would like, and the neglect was starting to be visible.
Google actually caved on an iMessage-style SMS takeover a year earlier, in 2014. The company pushed forward the bold direction of running all SMS messages through Hangouts in the 2013 release of Android 4.4 KitKat, which didn’t include any other SMS app. Carriers complained soon after, and Google immediately sided with carriers over users, shipping what the company described as a „carrier-centric“ SMS app, Google Messenger, in Android 5.0 Lollipop. Around 2014, the iOS/Android duopoly was not set in stone yet, and with Google still fighting Windows Phone 8, it didn’t want to upset carriers and give Microsoft an opening for success. Hangouts‘ SMS support would still hang out for a few more years, but Google proved it didn’t have the stomach to do anything the carriers didn’t enthusiastically approve of.
Hangouts collapsed about as quickly as it was built. Despite the superior functionality on Hangouts, Google started pushing users to switch SMS usage from Hangouts to the „carrier-centric“ Google Messenger SMS app in early 2016. At Google I/O 2016 in May, Google Allo was announced, a new messaging service that would ship with lots of bells and whistles that could have been helpful to Hangouts. By October 2016, Hangouts was no longer a default Android app, having lost its spot to Allo.
Hangouts started being stripped of features, but it was never enough to kill the app. In May 2017, Hangouts was stripped of its SMS functionality. In December 2018, Google announced a formal plan to kill Hangouts and transition users (many of whom have been around since Gtalk) over to yet another Google Messaging app, Google Chat, which was first built as a competition to Slack for G Suite. The Wear OS Hangouts app died in 2019, and location sharing and audio calls were ripped out of Hangouts in 2020.
Yet actually killing Hangouts has proven incredibly difficult for Google—mostly due to how many clients there are and how widespread it is. Despite the late 2018 shutdown announcement, Google hasn’t made a ton of progress in 2019 and 2020 toward replacing Hangouts. The latest timeline said that optional upgrades for consumers to Google Chat will start in 2021, and Google Voice support will die in 2022. There’s still no actual shutdown date.
Google Hangouts was the gold standard of Google Messaging apps, and the app has cast a long, dark shadow over all of Google’s up-and-coming messaging services. From here on out, any complaints about newer Google Messaging services almost always revolved around the quote, „Hangouts did this better.“ If Google could have just taken care of Hangouts over the years and thrown the full weight of the company behind this single messaging service, today it might have an iMessage-fighting, WhatsApp-rivaling message app, and I probably wouldn’t be writing this article. Google just could never throw the full weight of the company behind a single messaging app, and soon Google would move on to a new shiny bauble, leaving Hangouts to rot.
Google Spaces (2016)—A messaging app for Google I/O 2016 attendees
Lifetime: May 16, 2016—March 3, 2017 (8 months)
Platforms: Android, iOS, the Web
Google was really in the messaging mood at Google I/O 2016, where the company launched not one, but two messaging apps. The first was a completely baffling app called „Google Spaces,“ a group messaging service for „small group sharing.“
Spaces were basically chatrooms that you could share stuff to. You could create a room around a certain topic, invite people to it via a URL, and then people could post messages, photos, and links into the room. That was pretty much it. There were apps for the web, Android, and iOS, and the mobile apps would ship you notifications whenever someone posted a new message. Each space room looked identical to a messaging app, while an „activity stream“ would show all the new stuff from all your spaces (that looked like a social network stream).
Spaces‘ only unique feature was the odd choice to have Google Search „built-in.“ Instead of just copying and pasting a link to something from an outside app, Spaces would let you fire up a built-in web browser and navigate around the web. The Spaces web view would pin an easy „share to space“ button at the bottom of the screen, but was copying and pasting a link really that difficult?
Spaces had no real use case and no real appeal. Some takes compared Spaces to Slack, just with extremely limited functionality. Others express bewilderment that spaces looked and worked pretty much exactly like a Google+ Community, but detached from Google+ and without any cross-functionality. A big problem was that there wasn’t any moderation functionality at all, so if anyone got your Spaces URL and decided to be a jerk, there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Looking back, Spaces seemed like it was an app built specifically for Google I/O 2016. For those three days, every Google developer talk had a „Space“ where you could download the slides and see other related media. Google even pitched Spaces this way in the introductory blog post:
We’ll also be experimenting with Spaces this week at Google I/O. We’ve created a space for each session so that developers can connect with each other and Googlers around topics at I/O, and we’ve got a few surprises too. If you’re joining us in person at I/O, make sure you install Spaces on Android or iOS before you arrive!
Once everyone flew back home from Google I/O, the app was basically dead. As far as I can tell, Spaces never got an update or a new feature. Spaces worked for a whole eight months before posting was shut off on March 3, 2017, and Google deleted all the data the next month.
The life and death of Spaces raises an important question: Does anyone at Google do quality control for these things? Is there any gatekeeper at all? Someone that says, „No, this isn’t good enough to put the ‚Google‘ name on?“ Does anyone demand that launching a product comes with some kind of support commitment? It seems like the answer to all these things is „no,“ and that’s really a tough way to run a brand. Some Google divisions are out there building long-term, well-supported products The Right Way™, like Android and Chrome, and they get lumped in with fire-and-forget products like Space and Allo that destroy trust in the Google brand.
As consumers, it’s impossible to tell from the outside if a new product actually has a real commitment at Google, or if it’s just being shoved out the door to fluff up someone’s résumé. There needs to be some kind of standard for a product launch, and Space suggests there isn’t.
Google Allo (2016)—Google’s dead-on-arrival WhatsApp clone
Lifetime: September 21, 2016—March 14, 2019 (2 years, 5 months)
Platforms: Android, iOS, Phone-based web interface
Google lost out on purchasing WhatsApp in 2014. So just over two years later, at Google I/O 2016, Google announced a pair of apps that seemed aimed directly at the one that got away. „Google Allo“ was a straight-up clone of WhatsApp with some minimal Google magic, and Google Duo was a dead-simple „companion“ video app. Allo would go on to be one of the biggest flops in Google Messaging History. After a high-profile announcement on the Google I/O stage, the app launched a few months later in September to terrible reviews. It plummeted off the download charts in just a few months. The problem with cloning WhatsApp is that WhatsApp had a billion users at this point in 2016, and Allo had zero users. To say nothing of the many show-stopping feature deficiencies of Allo, why would anyone that likes WhatsApp-style apps use Google’s WhatsApp clone when actual WhatsApp existed? No one had an answer for that, and Allo was a disaster.
Allo took Google’s strategy of the Minimum Viable Product and turned in less functionality than ever. At launch, Allo only worked on phones. There wasn’t a web app or Chrome extension that would allow desktops and laptops to receive messages, and the support for iOS and Android tablets ranged from terrible to impossible-to-use. The limited device support wasn’t just from a lack of clients. Allo only supported signing in to one device at a time, anyway—if you signed in on device #2, the Allo on device #1 would shut off and stop receiving messages.
All of Allo’s strange client problems were due to it being a WhatsApp clone and to it being targeted at India. Allo didn’t use your Google account at all, and instead relied on your carrier’s phone number for identification. Users would have to make a new Allo account that was powered by the carrier’s SMS system, and it felt totally crazy to have to tell Google—a company that is supposed to know everything about you—basic info like your name and profile picture. Being locked to a SIM card was why Allo only worked on one device. That’s just the way SIM cards work. Browsers also don’t have a SIM card, so you couldn’t log in on a browser.
This account system made sense for WhatsApp, which had no existing account infrastructure or userbase, and a target audience of people that were relatively new to the Internet and don’t have a ton of devices. For Google though, people interested in a new Google product usually already have a Google account. The Google ecosystem is supposed to be a core part of the sales pitch. Allo just threw all of that out the window.
We can get into some of the bells and whistles later, but they really didn’t matter. The reaction to Allo was mostly just disbelief at how astoundingly incomplete it was when it came to the basics. Locking your messages into a single device meant the app wasn’t any more convenient than SMS. Allo didn’t seem like it wasn’t built for a modern, multi-device world. Compared to Hangouts, which worked on everything and supported SMS and Google Voice, Allo seemed like a joke and basically died on arrival.
The hype Allo generated as a Google product launch was enough to generate five million downloads in its first five days. After that, Allo completely stalled and would take three months to hit 10 million downloads. Keep in mind these are just downloads—people trying the app—and don’t represent people who stuck around and became active users, which, for every app, will be far lower than the total downloads. By January, four months after launch, the app fell off the Play Store’s top 500 app list and was completely dead.
Allo shows the ultimate failure of Google’s Minimum Viable Product strategy. MVP works when you have almost no competition, or if you are taking a radically different approach to what’s on the market, but it completely falls on its face when you are just straight-up cloning an established competitor. There’s no reason to use a half-baked WhatsApp clone when regular WhatsApp exists. The whole point of a minimum viable product is to launch, get feedback, and quickly iterate on that feedback, but Allo never did that. The app didn’t deliver any substantial new features quickly.
Google only got around to fixing one of Allo’s day-one, show-stopping problems—the lack of a desktop app—one year after launch, at which point Allo was already dead, buried, and the corpse had rotted away. Even then, the desktop mode wasn’t very good. Authentication was still based on your SIM card, so the desktop app needed you to log in with your phone and then forward that authentication to a browser via a QR code. From there, your phone would forward Allo messages to the web app. The phone was still the key, though. If your phone was missing, or the battery was dead, you couldn’t use Allo on the web.
What Google didn’t seem to understand at the time is that, like we covered in the earlier WhatsApp section, WhatsApp-style apps are not appealing to the whole world. Google tried to push its poor WhatsApp clone in the US, but even regular WhatsApp is not popular in the US. Apps that rely on SMS authentication don’t work well in a multi-device world, and that’s OK. Facebook understands this, so it has the Internet-based Facebook Messenger, which works great on multiple devices, has a website that doesn’t require your phone, and is generally available everywhere. Facebook also has the SMS-based WhatsApp, which is limited in device compatibility but is super easy to join. These two apps in Facebook’s arsenal have divvied up the world; neither app on its own would be popular everywhere.
When even the world’s most successful messaging company can’t make one app to rule the entire world, I don’t understand how one of the worst messaging companies thinks they can crack it.
Allo’s legacy: The Google Assistant
Allo was DOA thanks to the SMS limitations and competition from WhatsApp, but it did have some interesting ideas. There were stickers and adjustable text sizes, and Google Inbox’s machine-generated Smart Replies made the jump to a messaging app. An „incognito mode“ would turn on end-to-end encryption, but it wasn’t on by default.
Allo’s longest-lasting legacy is actually the Google Assistant, which debuted on the service. Allo’s text-only (it never spoke) chatbot version of the Google Assistant in September 2016 pre-dated the launch of the feature on the Google Pixel (October 2016) and the Google Home (November 2016). The Assistant in Allo was just like the Assistant in Google’s voice products today: You could ask it general knowledge questions, the weather, sports scores, or a million other things. Unlike the current voice interfaces, in the Allo version, the Assistant never talked out loud, it just sent you text messages and showed up as a contact in your chat list.
The theoretically fun part about the Google Assistant in Allo was that you could drag it into a group chat, ask it something like „what time is this movie playing?“ and negotiate a time with your group chat. This was all in theory because nobody ever actually used Allo. I really would not mind if the Google Assistant chatbot re-emerged in the next Google IM client.
As an individual chat contact, there wasn’t really a great reason to have a running history with the Google Assistant the way you would with a person, but the individual responses were good and useful. Later Google Assistant interfaces would cut off this running history and start with a fresh answer sheet every time, but the interfaces still look a lot like a messaging app.
Most people could tell Allo was instantly doomed from the terrible download numbers, but Google officially kicked off the beginning of the end for Allo in April 2018, about a year and a half after launch, when it announced it was „pausing“ Allo development. Allo was shut down a year later, in March 2019
Google Allo was just a slow-motion car crash that never sounded like it had a viable product pitch compared to Hangouts. We criticized Allo before it came out as „not making much sense,“ we were thoroughly disappointed when it launched, and we made fun of it when it died. It never stood a chance
Google Duo (2016)—A video companion app for… WhatsApp?
Lifetime: August 16, 2016—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, Phone-based web interface
Google Duo technically launched one month before Allo, but it’s much easier to understand as a footnote to the Google Allo story. There’s almost nothing to say about Duo because it was as basic of a video app as you can get: a simple contact list, a full-screen video feed interface, and not much else. Since, like Allo, it was targeted at India, Google put real effort into making Duo run on as little bandwidth as possible, and Google’s video and networking experts built something with a real market advantage.
This might be giving Google too much benefit of the doubt, but maybe the reason Allo was so bad was because Google didn’t actually need Allo to survive. Google pitched Duo and Allo as „companion apps,“ which was a ridiculous idea at the time. Messaging apps have built-in video functionality. Why would you split video and chat into two different apps? The most likely explanation was WhatsApp.
WhatsApp video chat wouldn’t launch until November 2016, so as a separate app, Duo could not only be a video companion app to Allo, it could also be a video companion app to WhatsApp. Lots of WhatsApp users ended up using Duo with WhatsApp. Not having Allo would mean Google would be sending the strange message of „go use Whatsapp,“ a rival Facebook service, and Duo couldn’t be paired with Hangouts since that already had video chat. Maybe Allo was a marketing crutch in retrospect?
While Allo is dead, Duo lives on. Today, as a default Android app, it has over a billion Play Store downloads. For years, the app required an SMS-powered account, like Google Allo, but sometime at the beginning of 2020, Google started letting people use Duo with only a Google account. All throughout 2020, Duo did its best to keep up with the world’s voracious video demand during the pandemic, increasing from 8 to 12 to 32 video chat members. Duo still couldn’t keep up with Zoom though, which allowed people to video chat without any account at all.
Duo’s survival makes it one of the strangest Google apps out there. It’s part of the Google ecosystem, but it really doesn’t feel like it. And Google Meet is clearly the future of Google’s corporate and consumer video chat roadmap. An August 2020 report from 9to5Google (which also broke the Google Hangouts/Google Chat merger news) says that someday, Google Duo will „merge“ with Google Meet and be shut down. Buckle up, Duo users.
Google (Hangouts) Meet (2017)—Not Zoom
Lifetime: March 9, 2017—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, Web, custom hardware, Google Glass
In March 2017, six months after the launch of Google Allo and Google Duo, Google announced another messaging and video app pair. This time, the releases were aimed at enterprise organizations. „Hangouts Chat“ and „Hangouts Meet“ were branding nightmares because they marked the third and fourth time Google has recycled the „Hangouts“ brand into a completely unrelated product. Don’t confuse Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet with either Google+ Hangouts (the video group chat service that launched with Google+ in 2011) or Google Hangouts (Google’s unified messaging service from 2013). Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet are totally new products, unrelated to anything else. It only took three years after Hangouts Chat and Meet were announced for Google to realize having four separate products called „Hangouts“ was too many. Eventually, the company did rename Hangouts Chat to „Google Chat“ and Hangouts Meet to „Google Meet.“
Hangouts Chat wouldn’t launch until about a year after that March 2017 announcement, but Google Hangouts Meet was launched that month. As usual, there is not a ton to say about a Google video chat app. You can join a room. The UI looks like a bunch of camera feeds. There are a few different layouts, like a Brady Bunch-style grid of squares or a thumbnail view.
Hangouts—and I mean old Hangouts, the 2011 consumer video chat version that was absorbed by the 2013 messaging app—only supported 10 video chatters at once. Hangouts Meet supported 30 people at launch, and today, the paid version of Google Meet caps out a questionably-productive 250 people.
Under the hood, both (old) Hangouts and Google Meet do video chat over WebRTC, so there’s not a huge difference in the actual video calls. The starting UIs were a lot different, though. Google Hangouts worked like a phone call and would ring any online devices. Google Meet is more of a destination; you link to a conference room that you share over some other form of communication, and everyone has to click.
The biggest legacy of Google Meet will probably be that it’s not Zoom, a video conferencing app that absolutely exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic and quickly became a household name. As the pandemic raged across the globe, people were locked down at home and needed a way to communicate for work, school, and fun. Suddenly, everyone in the modern world entered the video chat market, and the world needed to pick a service.
Nine years after the launch of Google+ Hangouts group video chat in 2011, would you believe that Google still wasn’t ready for the COVID video chat era? Google was busy re-re-re-re-launching its video chat solution, so it was caught totally flat-footed when COVID hit. Google Meet just barely got off the ground. Meet was locked behind the GSuite paywall until the very end of April, which was about two months into the work-from-home, remote schooling trend in many areas. Meet was also in the middle of a rebrand from „Google Hangouts Meet“ to „Google Meet,“ which was also happening in April 2020, when Zoom was already hockey-sticking up the daily usage charts. That’s nine years into the group video chat market, and when the golden ticket hit, Google had no product ready and no brand recognition. Instead, Google was just starting to launch, or really re-launch, a product.
Being paywalled meant Google Meet wasn’t viable for the hordes of non-technical users that suddenly needed to roll-their-own work-from-home setup. Any kind of payment, account, or software requirements would need to be repeated for all ~30 people in a meeting, and if you actually wanted to hold a meeting instead of spending all day getting people set up, that meant the meeting software setup needed to be as simple as possible. Zoom was ready. At the start of the pandemic, Zoom had a free tier that worked for most people. Also unlike Google, everyone in a Zoom meeting didn’t need a Zoom account—only the meeting owner needed an account. Everyone else just needed to have the app installed and click a link.
Zoom’s ease-of-setup turned the company into a rocketship that we might never see again in the tech space. By September 2020, the company was posting insane headlines like (not a typo) a 4000% increase in profits during the pandemic and a 2900% increase in users. Zoom became a household name, and today the service is so popular that „Zoom“ is now a verb meaning „to video call someone.“ I’ve definitely heard of people Zooming someone on Skype or Google Meet.
By April 2020, The New York Times was already writing about how Zoom had blown past its established rivals, and the report featured this absolutely brutal anecdote from a Google meeting:
Late last month, Philipp Schindler, Google’s chief business officer, held a videoconference with thousands of the search giant’s employees using Google Meet, three people who attended the call said. During the session, one employee asked why Zoom was reaping the biggest benefits even though Google had long offered Meet.
Mr. Schindler tried placating the engineer’s concerns, the people said. Then his young son stumbled into view of the camera and asked if his father was talking to his co-workers on Zoom. Mr. Schindler tried correcting him, but the boy went on to say how much he and his friends loved using Zoom.
Google’s last user numbers for Meet were announced in April 2020, and the company said its service had 100 million daily meeting participants. It’s definitely not a failure, but that pales in comparison to Zoom’s 300 million daily meeting participants. This weird „daily meeting participants“ metric that Zoom and Google settled on can also count a single user multiple times if they participate in multiple meetings, so it’s inflating both of the services numbers. Microsoft Teams, Microsoft’s Slack and Zoom competitor, has 145 million daily active users (individual people), so it’s safe to say Google is in third place, at least.
To try and catch up, Google is following the old Google+ playbook of „shove it into everything“ and hope users will accept the service. The Gmail app now has a „Google Meet“ (and „Google Chat“) tab at the bottom for some inexplicable reason—it’s basically an ad banner that you can thankfully turn off. The desktop Gmail site also has a Meet button in the sidebar and in the Google Chat widget.
At IO 2021, Google announced plans to stick Google Meet into Google Docs via a pop-up sidebar, like the way text chat works. Google Meet is a default app on Android and Chrome OS devices now and it (along with Zoom) got support on the Google Nest smart displays. In October 2020, Google even launched a Google Meet client for Google Glass Enterprise Edition. (Yes, despite the 2013-ish release and flop of the consumer edition, Google Glass still exists as a business device in 2021.)
Of course, Google Meet is also fully integrated into Google Chat, the companion chat service, but it was even back-ported into Google Hangouts, the 2013 chat service Google Chat is supposed to eventually, someday, maybe start replacing. Both have prominent „Start a meeting“ buttons in the UI these days. Patching Google Meet, an enterprise video meeting solution, into Hangouts, a consumer chat service, is awfully strange. Generating a meeting link for friends and family to join, instead of the old Google Hangouts method of answering a ringing video call, is a lot more awkward in practice.
Google even has companies make „Google Meet Hardware“ now. There is a whole selection of enterprise-grade (that means „obscenely expensive“) display, microphone, and camera packages for wiring up a boardroom with video conference capabilities. On the low-end, we’ve got the Asus Google Meet Starter Kit, which is $1750 and includes a 4K, wide-angle camera to capture the whole room, a combination speaker and microphone box that goes in the middle of the conference table, and (what is seemingly the core of all of these systems) the „Google Meet Compute System.“ That’s essentially an Intel Core i7-powered Chromebox that gets you connected to Google Meet. On the high-end, there’s the „Logitech Tap – Google Meet Large Room Bundle,“ which is $5100 and includes a 10.1-inch touchscreen, a camera, two speakers, a compute box, and two microphone pods for large table coverage. The camera is a swanky 4K pan/tilt/zoom unit that automatically targets and zooms in on the person it detects is talking.
There are also a few all-in-one displays, like the $1450 Acer Chromebase for Google Meet. And Meet is supported on the $5,000 Google Jamboard, a digital whiteboard for Google Docs.
I will give it to Google that (for now at least) Google Meet is well-maintained and constantly gets meaningful updates. There’s screen sharing, broadcasted meetings that support 100,000 GSuite viewers, the ability to record a meeting to Google Drive, and real-time captions. The app works well and is easy to use, it was just late. The status quo had been established, so it will be hard to get people to switch from Zoom.
YouTube Messages (2017)—Yes, this was really a thing
Lifetime: August 7, 2017—September 18, 2019 (2 years, 1 month)
Clients: Android. iOS, the Web
Google’s inability to throw its weight behind a single messaging solution has a ripple effect across the company’s whole ecosystem. Looking back at this point in 2017, we start to see a series of decisions from popular Google apps that all seem to follow the same rationale. They realize messaging is important and look like they would like to plug into a single competitive Google messaging app. But, lacking a stable messaging platform from the rest of Google or a top-down directive to be compatible with whatever the latest client is, these service teams end up building their own bespoke messaging service. These usually aren’t standalone apps but are instead messaging features that are glommed onto random Google apps. They are very awkward since they are never compatible with anything else, and it’s up to the users to manage a new, siloed list of contacts and message history. This is basically „The Google Docs Strategy.“
The first Google app to strike out on its own in the quest for a viable messaging solution was YouTube, which, in 2017, launched a feature called—what else—YouTube Messages! I see a lot of people who try to „invent“ this product as a joke, but it was a real thing that really existed for about two years, starting in 2017. The thought process here was pretty clear: YouTube probably gets a lot of referrals from „Hey did you see this?“ messages between friends, so why not let people do that directly from the site?
On the mobile app, YouTube’s messaging feature lived under a new „Shared“ tab, which was given a premium slot in the bottom bar, next to „Home,“ „Trending,“ „Subscriptions,“ and „Library.“ The Shared tab was exactly a messaging app, showing a list of conversations you and your friends were having around videos, all inside the YouTube app. On desktop, a „Messages“ button lived next to the bell and app buttons and would bring up a pop-up chat window, just like Google Docs and Gmail.
The YouTube Messages input box came with a little „+ video“ button, so you could easily drop videos into your conversation. It looks like you could react to each message with a heart button (not the typical „Like“ button?), too. Contacts for YouTube Messaging could be added through your phone’s contact app or by just sending someone an „invitation link“ through email or some other chat app.
When YouTube announced the messaging feature would be shut down after just two years of operation, it did not give a reason. One theory floated by TechCrunch is that YouTube messenger was inundated with children, who were using the messaging service to skirt parental controls that had been put in place blocking other messaging apps. YouTube is frequently used as a babysitter, so it’s unblocked for kids, and the surprise addition of a messaging app gets to slip through the filter. Backing up this theory are the 1,400+ angry comments on the original shutdown announcement, full of all-caps messages, emojis, and various messages about how YouTube Messaging is „the only way for some people to talk to their friends.“ In 2019, YouTube was in the midst of a big controversy over pedophilia, and YouTube started doing things like shutting down comments on videos featuring minors. Someone at YouTube might have noticed the Messaging feature demographics and decided to give that the axe, too.
Google (Hangouts) Chat (2018)—Part 1: Cloning Slack is actually a good idea
Lifetime: February 28, 2018—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, Web
Hangouts Chat was announced alongside Hangouts Meet in 2017, but it didn’t leave a very limited early access program until February 28, 2018, when it became available exclusively to organizations paying for G Suite (G Suite is now called Google Workspace). Hangouts Chat has had one of the most turbulent rides of Google’s products in its short four years on this Earth. In that time, it has undergone both a big rebranding and what seems like a major pivot in its target audience. Coupled with initial restrictive access requirements, it has been one of Google’s hardest apps to nail down.
Hangouts Chat was announced as an „enterprise-focused communication tool,“ AKA a competitor to Slack. There aren’t a lot of hands-on impressions from the early days of the app, since it was 1) invite-only, 2) locked behind the G Suite paywall, and 3) would need a corporation to subject its entire staff to an „early access“ app. Nobody wanted to try this. Your best bet for an early look is this 9to5Google hands-on article from December 2018, a full nine months after the general G Suite launch. It’s so plain and barren.
The day-one features were support for rooms, DMs, treated messages, bots, and @mentions of usernames. The way Hangouts Chat treats threads is pretty different. Slack is presented as a normal chat room, and then you can reply to any individual message to start a thread. Hangouts Chat makes every message threaded, resulting in a kind of forum-style layout where every message must either be a reply or a new, top-level comment. There’s not even a stationary text input box. There are „reply“ input boxes at the bottom of every thread and a „new thread“ button at the bottom of all that.
Just like Slack, Hangouts Chat supports several chatbots, letting you stream outside info into your chat room for things like Asana, Trello, Google Drive, and more. Hangouts Chat works on iOS, Android, and the web, and while there used to be Electron apps for Windows and Mac (just like Slack), today, desktop is handled by a Progressive Web App (PWA). Both Electron and PWAs present web apps as desktop apps, but Electron packs its own Chromium-based browser, while PWAs use the Chromium browser already on your computer.
I don’t think the execution is there yet, even four years after it was first announced, but the basic idea of a Google version of Slack still sounds fantastic. It’s not often that making an exact copy of a competitor results in a successful product, but here, I think a pixel-for-pixel copy of Slack would do well. Many organizations (Ars Technica included!) pay for both G Suite and Slack, and if a fully featured „Google Slack“ was included in the G Suite price, I think a lot of organizations would switch just to cut down from two bills to one. It has been four years now, though, and Google (Hangouts) Chat still feels like an early access app—not a viable Slack replacement.
If you’re wondering what’s missing from Google Chat compared to Slack, Slack has an entire right-side panel you can set up with critical information, like a running list of your @mentions, a list of files in the chat, or pinned messages. Channels in Slack have topics, which are great for important notifications or getting everyone on a channel on the same page. There are keyword notifications that will ping you any time someone in chat mentions a certain topic, which is great for summoning the Android Defence Force (OK, that’s really just me) in the Ars Technica Slack. If you want to see everything, bird’s-eye views like „All unreads“ or „All DMs“ are for you, as these options will show everything in one big, scrollable list. There’s not just a dark mode, there’s a fully customizable theme system—just type in whatever hex codes you want. You can create and upload your own emoji, even animated ones (at Ars, we have 410 custom emojis and counting). Slack also supports multiple organization workspaces, so here it’s possible to not just be in the Ars Technica Slack, with all the usual people, rooms, and emojis, but also the Conde Nast Slack, with a whole different set of people, rooms, and other settings. There are probably a million other things I’m forgetting about. Slack is a very mature app.
Google Chat is not even close to Slack, but Slack is nearly twice the age of Google Chat. Can Google Chat catch up? Right now it does not seem like Google is giving the app the focus or resources it needs to compete. In the same way that Facebook snapped up WhatsApp for $22 billion in 2014, in December 2020, Slack was acquired by Salesforce for an incredible $27.7 billion. Once again this deal shows that Google’s competitors value a single messaging app to be worth tens of billions of dollars, while Google seems to value messaging at an order of magnitude less than that. Has Google ever invested even a fraction of Slack’s price tag into a single app? Google Chat certainly doesn’t seem like anywhere close to a $27 billion app.
We’ll deal with Google Chat’s big consumer pivot later on, but for now, it’s on to the next project.
Google Maps Messages (2018)—Business messaging, now with the instability of Google
Lifetime: November 14, 2018—Present
Clients: Android, iOS
Customer service happens through Google Maps all the time. You look up a business on the site or app and have a question about what services they offer. Traditionally, you call them up. What if you could do that through instant messaging, though?
When, exactly, you want to start qualifying this as a „Google“ messaging service is up for debate, but it definitely is today. Google officially launched a „Message“ button in Maps in July 2017. At first, just as the „call“ button would launch your phone app, the „Message“ button would launch your SMS app. From there, you could text Google (not the business), which would forward the message on to the business.
In this first version, businesses could sign up for Google’s messaging support one of two ways. First, just give Google an SMS number, and the company could forward all your messages to that number, where you could easily reply. The second option, hilariously, was to receive messages through Google Allo! At this point, the Allo app was about one year into its two-year lifetime, and it apparently powered this feature on Google’s back end. Oh no.
For consumers, the entire way this „Message“ button worked was changed in November 2018, when Google Maps got a full-blown messaging UI. Instead of firing up an SMS app, Google Maps got its own in-house version of the ubiquitous bubble-powered message UI. It also got a message inbox, where you could see all of the messages you’ve ever sent (but, to businesses), just like every other messaging app on Earth. At launch, the message inbox got a premium spot in the slide-out navigation panel, where „Messages“ lived right between „Your contributions“ (reviews and photos) and „Location Sharing.“ Today the slide-out navigation panel is dead, and in the new bottom tab UI, the Messages inbox is in the „Updates“ tab.
With the death of Allo, the back-end of this had to change for businesses, and in 2019 Google’s solution was to bring the entire messaging system in-house. Allo was, of course, removed as an option to receive customer messages, but so was SMS. Now, businesses have to use the „Google My Business“ app for iOS or Android to reply to customers, making Maps Messaging a truly independent Google Messaging Service. For businesses that (understandably) don’t want to communicate to the entire world through a phone, there’s also the Google Business Messages API, a REST API that allows larger companies to plug the system into some kind of customer management app.
All of this messaging stuff is only on the Google Maps app, by the way. You can’t message businesses from the Google Maps website. This made total sense in 2017 when the feature opened up your phone’s SMS app—but most desktops don’t have an SMS app. Now that the entire end-to-end messaging system is a web-based Google service, though, there is no reason you can’t do it from maps.google.com. When will we get yet another Google website with a pop-up chat window?
This entire section is pretty much Google copying Facebook’s business messaging feature, which it has on Facebook Business pages. You know what Facebook business messages use, though? Facebook Messenger! Things are so simple when you have a stable messaging platform.
Google & RCS (2019)—So we found this dusty old messaging standard in a closet…
Lifetime: July 2019—Present
Platforms: Android, Phone-based web interface
When Google announced it was „pausing“ Allo development in 2018, it also announced it had found a hot new fling: Rich Communication Service, or RCS Messaging. RCS was cooked up by the GSM Association in 2008 as an upgrade to SMS. It adds a few really basic features to carrier messaging, like user presence, typing status, read receipts, and location sharing. The way RCS is supposed to work is that Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and all the other carriers upgrade from SMS to RCS, and then all the texting apps on the network get to talk to each other. If you can’t tell from the standard’s 13-year-old origins, the rollout of RCS is best mapped out on a geologic time scale, with carriers occasionally paying lip service to upgrading SMS but doing very little in terms of actual action.
Google calls its RCS rollout „Chat,“ which is extremely confusing given that there is already a „Google Chat“ product that we covered earlier. The Google Chat and Google RCS Chat are not in any way related or compatible. Google’s client of choice for its RCS solution is Google Messages, aka Android’s stock SMS app. The lineage of the Google Messages app dates back to the Android 5.0 Lollipop days in 2014. A year before, Google went „full iMessage“ and killed the Android SMS app in favor of Google Hangouts SMS compatibility. Carriers didn’t like that, and Google quickly caved by building a „Messenger“ SMS app for Android 5.0. Being around for seven years means the Google Messenger app is mature and fully featured—for an SMS app. The app features Google’s smart reply buttons, a very modern UI, and even a web interface for desktops, which forwards messages from your phone to the website through a QR-Code pairing process. There’s also a „video call“ button that connects people through Duo if you both have the app installed.
Google’s fascination with RCS started in 2015 when it acquired Jibe Mobile, a back-end RCS company that was focused on selling RCS server solutions to carriers. With Jibe, Google could offer a full end-to-end RCS solution to carriers: the back-end server solutions from Jibe, and the front-end client work with Android. The carriers, already weary of how much power Google had over them with Android, opted not to turn over their entire messaging stack to Google, and pretty much nothing happened for four years. With the 2018 shutdown of Allo, Google announced it was moving some of the team over to Google Messages, with a renewed focus on RCS.
In October 2019, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all responded by snubbing Google and launching their own RCS alliance, the „Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative (CCMI).“ The carriers talked a big talk saying they would build a „standards-based, interoperable messaging service“ and promised adopting 2008-era messaging features that would deliver „the next generation of messaging.“ The 2020 launch deadline flew by with nothing to show for it, and the whole initiative shut down in 2021 having accomplished absolutely nothing over two years.
The CCMI announcement pushed Google to counter with its own announcement: that it was giving up on carriers and would roll out its own RCS system using the Google Messages app. Not teaming up with the carriers would mean that its RCS solution would exist alongside SMS, and Google would push users to turn on „Chat features“ with a pop-up in Google Messages. This was basically turning RCS, a carrier-made messaging standard, into an over-the-top messaging service. Google first rolled out this system in the UK and France in July 2019, and as of November 2020, it’s available globally.
After the failure of CCMI, the three US carriers (RIP Sprint) have actually given in to Google’s RCS ambitions. T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon are all shipping Google Messages by default on Android. But critically, Apple is anti-RCS.
RCS is bad, and anyone who likes it should feel bad
Like Allo, RCS Messaging is another plan that doesn’t make a ton of sense on paper. RCS is a carrier-controlled messaging standard, and therefore not something Google has a ton of control over. Adding a feature to RCS means getting the entire carrier bureaucracy involved with debating and ratifying the new change. There is no way you can move fast enough to compete with an over-the-top messaging service controlled by a single entity. RCS might be better than SMS, but it will never be good.
RCS has a ton of downsides compared to a real messaging service, but that’s all supposed to be a worthy trade for one benefit: RCS is supposed to replace SMS, so it’s supposed to be universally available on all devices. Will that ever happen, though?
Apple does not want good messaging compatibility with Android. The company said as much in internal communication that was made public thanks to the Epic Games case. Apple’s internal debate showed it viewed iMessage’s high-quality iPhone-to-iPhone communication as „serious lock-in“ and a feature that kept users on iOS. Following this same logic, Apple doesn’t want RCS because that would make messaging with Android easier. In Apple’s view, easier communication with Android users would only help those users leave iOS.
Even if you could snap your fingers and magically roll out RCS to every device, you wouldn’t actually create a competitive messaging solution. Being a standard created in 2008 means RCS has standards from 2008, and it’s lacking things you would want from a modern messaging service, like end-to-end encryption. The Google Messenger strategy strangely insists on using RCS as the base protocol, but the service also keeps trying to build features on top of it that kick in when both users are on Google Messages.
Today, if both users are using Google Messenger, you can have all sorts of interesting features, like end-to-end encryption for 1-1 chats, reaction emojis, and audio messages, which aren’t in the RCS spec. That makes it seem like Google is almost building its own messaging service, but with really unclear compatibility and an ancient RCS protocol, which it has no control over, as the core. What is the point of this? It’s hard to see carriers shipping Google Messages as a default Android app as progress. Google can easily make any app it wants an Android default. Google Talk and Google Hangouts enjoyed default-install status for years. They shipped on every single Android phone, not just the ones from US carriers. These services were also optionally available on iOS, while RCS is not.
RCS also has all the same problems as SMS and Google Allo when it comes to how you should architect a messaging service. RCS will use your carrier-owned phone number as your identity online, instead of an Internet-based account system. Changing Internet identity from a free email account to a paid number owned by a carrier is a terrible and, I would argue, immoral idea. Tying online identity to the ability to continuously pay a phone bill is straight-up discriminatory toward people of lower income. There should not be a risk of losing your online identity if you stop paying your bill for a month or change phone carriers. There’s no upside to phone number identity at all, yet Google keeps doing it.
Carrier-owned identity means your messaging world will be dependent on your smartphone and tied to a single device, instead of being a service that just lives on the Internet and is accessible everywhere. It makes support for multiple devices and form factors difficult. Google does have a Google Messages „website,“ but it’s not a web service—instead it is just a forwarding interface for your phone, which has to be charged up, turned on, and paired to the site. Like with Allo, a QR code scanned by your phone will set up a hacky message-forwarding solution that isn’t as convenient or capable as a native web service. Google is also working on a „device pairing“ feature to ship your SMS/RCS messages to a tablet over what I assume is local networking with your phone. It all just seems like a janky, backward solution compared to simply using a web service. As a phone app, Google Messages isn’t bad, but it has zero independent clients for non-phone form factors.
Google’s RCS plans seem like a disaster. Even if it worked and universally replaced SMS, you’d end up with a bottom-tier messaging service. It’s not even going to work, though.
Google Photos Messages (2019)—You get a messaging feature! And YOU! And you!
Lifetime: December 3, 2019—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, the Web
Who’s starting to see a pattern? With no viable Google messaging platform, I feel like Google just opened the „top apps“ listings and started slapping a messaging feature onto every popular Google service. How soon until we get „Google Search Messaging?“ Hahaha. (Actual answer: May 6, 2021.)
Think about how Facebook works. You upload a cool photo and want to tell your friends so you can post it on your social media feed or message your friends through Facebook Messenger. Easy! This was the original vision for Google Photos, which launched alongside Google+. After the amputation of Google+, it’s now up to Google Photos to try to graft on some of these social features itself. So, in December 2019, Google Photos got a messaging service.
Google Photos Messaging is pretty standard. You can start a group chat thread via the photo „share“ button, where you can send a link or directly message someone else on Google Photos. The „Sharing“ tab at the bottom of the screen is your message inbox, and you can view and reply to any existing chat threads. Photos will send you notifications when new messages come in. This is all supported on the website, too. Would you believe it supports sending pictures?
Google Stadia Messages (2020)—Two great tastes that taste great together
Lifetime: November 16, 2020—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, the Web
Easily the most doomed section of this entire article, even Google Stadia has a messaging service. Google Stadia is (or „was,“ depending on when you’re reading this article) a game-streaming service from Google. Instead of going out and buying a game console, you can stream a video game over the Internet, one frame at a time, from Google’s computerized warehouses to your various devices. After all that time running YouTube, the technology behind Stadia is solid and works fine, provided you have great Internet latency.
Google’s poor execution of Stadia seems like it’s leading to an inevitable execution of Stadia, though. The payment model is totally crazy. Rather than just being „Netflix for games,“ Stadia asks users to buy games at full price, and then you can only play them at 1080p unless you pay another $10-a-month subscription fee to unlock 4K mode. Given Google’s history (see: this entire article you’re reading), a lot of people are hesitant to pay full price for a Google gaming service where the games might disappear any month now.
Despite being a warehouse-scale computer capable of being far more powerful than your average PC, the cloud computers you’re renting from Google aren’t even particularly good. Games like Destiny 2 can only run on the PC equivalent of „medium“ settings, and some of those 4K games you’re paying $10-a-month extra for aren’t actually in 4K—they are upscaled to 4K because Stadia is too slow to run them in native 4K. Google is currently facing a lawsuit over false „4K“ advertising. Google refuses to lean into the good parts of game-streaming technology, which is that a warehouse-scale computer could be way faster than any local computer you could possibly build, if Google would just allocate the resources for it. This is the traditional sales pitch behind cloud computing, after all. Cloud games also have an instant start-up time with no install, which would make them great for game demos.
Couple those issues with Google’s shaky history of keeping services running, and Stadia seems doomed. The dominoes are already falling, in fact. User signups were reportedly „hundreds of thousands“ short of what Google was expecting, and the company closed its in-house development studio before it had time to develop a single game. Stadia’s VP and head of product quit, then the head of engineering quit. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before it’s game over for Stadia.
Wait, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, Stadia has a totally siloed messaging service. The feature rolled out in November 2020, about one year after Stadia’s incredibly bare-bones and underwhelming launch. It seems pretty normal. You can find people by their email address or Stadia gamer tag, provided that their profile is set up to be publicly searchable. It really seems like Stadia should plug into something for contacts, but it can’t even scan your phone contact list, Gmail, or a messaging app to find Stadia players you already know. Instead, you’ve just got to type everything in manually. The truth is, you probably don’t know any Stadia players, but it would be nice to scan your contacts so you could message ‚em.
Google Pay Messages (2021)—We actually learned nothing from Google Allo
Lifetime: March 4, 2021—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS
In 2021, Google completely re-launched Google Pay. It threw out the old codebase that had previously existed first as Google Wallet, then Android Pay, then Google Pay, and the company instead rolled out a completely different „Google Pay“ product it had developed in India. This product was originally called „Google Tez.“ Users making the transition lost their contact list and a lot of functionality, so we basically saw the shutdown of one service called „Google Pay“ and the launch of a completely separate, new service, also called „Google Pay.“
Just like Google Allo, which was also targeted at India initially, the new Google Pay uses your cell carrier’s phone number for your identity, which causes a whole bunch of problems. It takes what used to be a modern, Internet-based account system and throws it out in favor of tying your identity to your phone number, which you don’t control and is tied to your ability to pay a monthly bill. Old Google Pay could be accessed from anywhere you had an Internet connection, but carrier identity systems mean that now, you can only use your smartphone to access the service. As a result, the Google Pay website had to have all the functionality stripped out of it. Carrier-based identity systems might make sense in places where people only have a smartphone, but in the US, it’s very limiting. There’s also no clear upside that I can see. Why not just use a Google account like normal? People who want to use a Google product have a Google account. People who don’t have Google accounts at this point are generally boycotting the entire company.
Google Pay has long had the ability to send money to a friend or contact, and New Google Pay added—you guessed it—messaging! Existing users of old Google Pay had a list of contacts, but with the move to the new Google Pay, all your new contacts have to re-signup for the service again (because New Google Pay is a totally different service from old Google Pay, sigh). Provided you have such friends who made new accounts, you can add them to your Google Pay contacts, and then you’ll see three options: „Pay,“ „Request,“ and „Message.“
Payments are built into a lot of other messaging services, like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and iMessage. Like Google Photos, the plan here is to try to replicate that by glomming a basic messaging service onto Google’s existing product. In reality, this decision just further fragments users across a million different Google messaging apps and features.
Google Assistant Messages (2021)—Text and voice chat, for families?
Lifetime: May 6, 2021—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, smart displays
It’s amazing we don’t get more variety in messaging services given the sheer number of them that Google has launched. But finally, here’s something different: a voice-first messaging system. The Google Assistant has long had a feature called „Broadcast,“ which would blast out a message to every device on the same Wi-Fi network, making it sort of like an intercom system for your Google Nest speakers and smart displays.
In May 2021, Google expanded the Assistant’s Broadcast to work on phones, even when they’re not on your home network. You don’t always want to scream into your phone in public, and you don’t want to blast a broadcast message out of the speakers, so the new interface includes transcriptions of all the incoming voice messages plus a text input field. The interface for this is absolutely a messaging app with a play button below each text message for playback of any audio. At home on a Google smart speaker, a voice can read out any messages you send.
On Android, the Google Assistant is built into the Google Search app, so if anyone is making a „Google Search Messaging“ joke, that already exists! On iOS, messages arrive through a dedicated Google Assistant app. The one big limitation of this messaging service is that it’s for family members only, meaning people you have in your Google Family Group. It’s like a messaging app for a single „Family“ group chat.
Google Phone Messaging (2021)—Isn’t this going a little too far?
Lifetime: June 2021—Present
Every phone has two pretty basic apps: the phone app for phone calls and a messaging app for text messages. For a long time, Google has had an option in the phone app dialer to „Send a message,“ which would forward the typed-in number to your default messaging app. This is fine and normally wouldn’t count for our purposes.
Recently, though, Android Police spotted some versions of the phone app that, for some businesses, will show a „Chat“ button next to the „Call“ button after you’ve typed in a number. Instead of launching a separate messaging app, this would launch a totally new messaging interface, which the „recent apps“ screen identifies as part of Google Play Services. Presumably, this is based on the same kind of business messaging as Google Maps but with a whole new Google Phone client, for some reason. I know better than to ask for messaging unity at this point. Unity is for wimps!
Google Chat, Part 2 (2021)—No wait, this is actually a consumer app now!
Lifetime: June 14, 2021—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, web, Gmail
We made it—meet the last messaging app on our list. The future of Google Messaging, for now, is Google Chat. We’re cheating a bit by giving Google Chat a second section, but that’s really what it feels like—a complete reboot and pivot of an existing project.
When Google Hangouts Chat was first announced, it was basically pitched as Google’s Slack competitor. Google’s 2017 blog post called the service „a communication tool focused on the way teams work“ that was „purpose-built“ to „help employees succeed.“ Suddenly, at the end of 2018, Google started talking about Hangouts Chat as if it was a consumer chat app.
When I say „suddenly,“ I mean it. Google Chat for consumers got what has to be one of the worst product announcements of all time: it was unveiled in an angry Twitter thread from Hangouts project lead Scott Johnston. Johnston took issue with a 9to5Google report that claimed that Google was shutting down Google Hangouts (the 2013 app), calling it „shoddy reporting“ because it „is only half the story.“ Johnston then dumped the other half out on Twitter: Hangouts, which Johnston was now calling „Hangouts Classic,“ would be transitioned to Google Chat, the enterprise communication app. What in the world?
Google Chat started life as „Google Hangouts Chat.“ So looking back, it might seem like porting over Hangouts users was the plan all along, but that definitely was not communicated by Google. Google Hangouts Chat was an enterprise app that you needed to pay for, and Hangouts was a free consumer chat app. Since this would be the third time a mostly unrelated service was called „Hangouts,“ everyone mostly just rolled their eyes and laughed at Google’s terrible branding. It was unthinkable that the two would merge. It didn’t make any sense.
Three days later, Google got its act together and put out a formal blog post. The post confirmed 9to5’s report that Google Hangouts was shutting down, and it laid out a questionable transition plan, saying, „[Google] Chat and Meet are primarily focused on team collaboration for G Suite customers and at some point will be made available for existing Hangouts users, too.“ So Google Chat is still an enterprise Slack competitor, but you’re going to push your consumer user base over to it anyway? What sense does that make?
Google Hangouts represents Google’s biggest consumer messaging userbase because it has been around forever. While Google messaging apps have grown and been cut down like so many blades of grass over the years, the one throughline is Google Talk users, who were more or less smoothly transitioned from Talk to Google Hangouts. They’ve been clinging onto Google’s wobbly messaging platform for 16 years. It sounds like somebody at Google realized they should do something with these users, and all of a sudden, enterprise Google Chat was drafted as the next app they would be pushed over to.
Starting in late 2020, Google Chat started opening up to free consumer accounts, instead of via the exclusive paywalled Google Workspace. At the time of writing, we’re firmly in the transition period between Google Chat and Google Hangouts. Unlike some of Google’s more calamitous user transitions lately—like moving from old Google Pay to new Google Pay, or from Google Play Music to YouTube Music—it looks like the transition from Google Hangouts to Google Chat will not be a disaster.
Currently, you can use both Hangouts and Google Chat, and your messages and contacts will show up in both apps. Google Chat mostly works and is fully functional, with support for image uploads, group chat, and most other things you could want. Hangouts users are getting gently pushed to Google Chat with a few pop-up messages that have started showing up in the UI. The interface is mostly a drop-in replacement for Google Hangouts, with a lot of the same features just in a more modern client. Google Chat adds @mentions—which are great for group chats—along with emoji reactions to messages and AI-generated smart replies.
The main oddity is Google Chat’s insistence on treating group chat rooms like some separate form of communication instead of listing them alongside your other chats. The interface is awkwardly split up into „Chat“ and „Rooms“ on the web, and these are in different panels. In the phone app, however, they are on totally different screens thanks to the tab interface. It makes chat rooms a pain to use. Another major problem with chat rooms is that they don’t show a preview for the last message in the message list, so they’re very hard to keep up with.
Google Chat’s „Rooms“ and „Chat“ break down is just like Slack’s Channels and DMs, but the difference is that Slack is an organization-wide app, so this breakdown makes a bit more sense. There are channels and people I don’t interact with, but they need to exist for other people. My list of contacts and rooms in Google Chat is personal and a lot smaller than Slack, so just putting everything in a flat list would be a lot easier. Slack also lets you star channels and contacts, giving you a flat list of people and group chats you frequently use all on the same screen. That basic functionality is all I want.
Google Chat is from the Google Workspace team, which also controls Gmail, so Chat is getting deep Gmail integration in an attempt to put the service in the face of as many users as possible. Google Talk and Hangouts have previously been built into gmail.com, just never like this. Google Chat basically gets free run of the place, with two sidebar sections, a pop-up, a status selector in the top-right corner, and a crazy split-screen interface that puts Google Chat on the left side of the screen and Google Docs on the other.
Google Chat also took the unprecedented move of being integrated into the Gmail smartphone app, which I guess is like the modern equivalent of being built into Gmail.com. With Google Chat, the Gmail app has a new tab bar at the bottom that can jump into interfaces for Meet or Chat, and Chat is fully functional with notifications, contacts, and everything else you’d want from a messaging app. You don’t need to have the Google Chat app installed at all, provided you have the Gmail app.
If you have Gmail and Google Chat installed, you’ll be notified twice of any incoming messages, and Gmail actually has a pop-up pointing this out. The pop-up recommends that you turn off notifications for the standalone Google Chat app and exclusively use Gmail for your Google Chatting, which really goes against the normal smartphone interface of individual app icons.
The big thing Google Chat has going for it is that, as a primarily enterprise app within Google Workspace, it has an actual monetization plan. Fifteen years ago, Google Talk stripped the banner ads out of the standard instant messenger interface, and this is the first time since that Google has come up with a monetization replacement plan. Companies pay for Google Workspace, and presumably, some of that Workspace money is being attributed to Google Chat. Will this be enough to keep the project going and finally provide some stability to Google Messaging?
Is anyone in charge at Google?
Even with all this shoddy history, Google doesn’t seem to have learned anything. Today, the confusing, intimidating pile of Google Messaging services is bigger than it has ever been, with Google Chat, Google Messages/RCS, Google Voice/Project Fi, and separate messaging services in Photos, Messages, Pay, Assistant, Stadia, Maps, and Phone. If you’re really an expert, you can probably narrow this list down somewhat, but Google is still simultaneously pushing the enterprise-first-but-also-consumer-messaging app, Google Chat, while also duplicating efforts and muddying its sales pitch to users with RCS on Google Messages. Which services does Google really care about? Which one is the future of the company? It’s hard to say.
The overwhelming impression from Google’s continual messaging chaos is that nobody at the company is really in charge. Some products at Google get mandatory support and hiring (like the advertising division), but others, like messaging, rely on the enthusiasm and availability of individual employees to be continually supported and stay running. Google has previously defended this hands-off management style as „letting a thousand flowers bloom,“ but the company’s messaging situation is more like a yard full of weeds—neglected, embarrassing, and damaging to the company’s reputation.
Apple calls messaging the „most important apps in a mobile environment.“ Facebook and Salesforce invest tens of billions of dollars into messaging, making acquisitions of WhatsApp and Slack some of the biggest deals in the tech industry, ever. Google, on the other hand, can’t be bothered to hold down a stable messaging project. It’s really incredible how out of step Google’s thinking is with its competitors.
If Google treated messaging like most of its competitors do, there would be a top-down mandate that messaging be a pillar of the company alongside Search, Gmail, Chrome, Android, Google Docs, Maps, and YouTube. The messaging strategy wouldn’t change every two years, and Google might actually have a chance to grow a messaging user base. The person that is supposed to be implementing some kind of strategy is Google CEO Sundar Pichai, but his timid management style means nobody is directing Google employees to put in the hard work of building and maintaining a messaging platform. Instead, individual groups at the company are free to fire off half-baked products into the public, and these releases get outsized attention, media coverage, and initial traction thanks to the „Google“ name. From there, they damage trust in the Google brand when services are shut down.
I’ve written before about how Google’s constant product shutdowns damage the brand, and messaging apps are one of the biggest contributors to the growing Google graveyard. Switching to a messaging app requires a big commitment, with the need to get friends and family to switch. Like any social app, messaging apps are dependent on the network effect, and shutting them down every two years is a great way to sabotage any possible user adoption.
Being kicked off a service has a lasting effect on a user. Google treats shutdowns like they are no big deal, but it’s more like burning a bridge with everyone on it who used the service. I think it’s part of the reason public perception of Google has changed over the years. There used to be a lot more Google fans out there—people were optimistic about Google and eager to try any new Google products. If Google managed its products well, today these people might be vocal product advocates, similar to the support companies like Apple or Tesla enjoy. Instead, being a Google enthusiast over the years has meant getting hit frequently by Google shutdowns. Today, I don’t think there are many Google advocates left, and it’s hard to be optimistic about any new product launch.
The Google Talk saga is a case in point. It feels like it’s for a company that doesn’t exist today. When Google Talk launched, there was an assumption that Google would dominate messaging, because back then, Google was seen as a disrupter and a company that put effort behind the new markets it entered. Today, no one assumes Google will be successful in a new market. And it’s because of what we outlined here, a list of so many low-effort projects.
What Apple has lost—and gained—since Steve Jobs died 10 years ago
By multiple standards, the company is doing better than even an optimist would have predicted in 2011. But it still has a Steve Jobs-shaped hole in it.
Ten years ago today, I happened to be attending a trade show in Tokyo when a tech journalist friend back in California phoned to ask if I’d heard Steve Jobs had died. I hadn’t: Apple had just made the sad announcement and it hadn’t yet overtaken Twitter, news sites, and—it would soon seem—every other form of media.
Rather than continuing with my trip as planned, I spent the rest of it writing multiple pieces about Apple’s cofounder and his impact on his company and the world. Throughout, I did my best to avoid coming to any snap judgments about what an Apple without Jobs would look like. Even a year after Jobs’s death, I marked its anniversary by arguing that it was too soon to judge how Apple was faring, in part because the company was still releasing products that he’d had a hand in shaping.
Nine years after that, I have no excuses. Tim Cook has been Apple’s CEO for more than a fifth of the company’s history. Comparing his Apple to Steve Jobs’s legacy remains tricky, since we’ll never know how Jobs would have handled the same decisions Cook has made. But since it’s no longer premature to ponder such matters, I’m going to give it a shot. And I’m going to divide my musings into four broad categories.
Apple as a business
This one’s easy.
When Jobs died, some who weighed in about Apple’s future—including Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, a close Jobs friend—expected the worst. You didn’t have to think Jobs was irreplaceable to guess that Cook would have his hands full dealing with threats such as the growing popularity of phones based on Google’s Android operating system.
Still, many observers concluded that Apple stood a good chance of flourishing under Cook. Hedge fund manager James Altucher, who had already predicted that Apple would be the first $1 trillion company, doubled down on the prognostication after Jobs’s passing.
But even Altucher didn’t talk about Apple becoming the first company to reach a valuation of $2 trillion, a feat it achieved less than nine years after Jobs’s death. Apple is now worth more than six times what it was on October 5, 2011. As the smartphone market matured, Cook turned out to be one of the best CEOs in the history of business, adroitly keeping Apple growing through strategies such as bolstering its services portfolio.
From a Wall Street perspective, the unanswerable question that feels most pertinent is not “would Apple have been more successful if Steve Jobs was still CEO?” Instead, it’s more like “would an Apple run by Steve Jobs have matched Tim Cook’s history-making financial results?”
The next big thing(s)
For the first year or two of Tim Cook’s tenure as Apple CEO, some pundits helpfully explained that Jobs had unveiled an epoch-shifting gadget every couple of years—and that Cook would be a failure if he didn’t continue that pace. As I wrote back then, this was silly. For one thing, even Jobs didn’t change history with anything like the frequency that people thought he did. For another, Cook deserved more than two years to prove how much vision Apple would have under his leadership.
Enough time has passed that it’s now fair to compare Cook’s biggest products to Jobs landmarks such as the Apple II, Mac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad. Apples biggest all-new product since 2011 has unquestionably been the Apple Watch, which is now worn by 100 million people, including a third of iPhone users in the U.S. Judged purely as a revenue generator, the smartwatch deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Jobs’s signature products: It’s a bigger business than the iPod was at its height.
The other obvious megahit of the Cook years are AirPods, which defined the modern wireless-earbud category and still lead it; they’re as iconic as wired iPod earbuds once were—and vastly more profitable for Apple.
Any Apple rival would salivate at the prospect of creating a business as successful as the Apple Watch and AirPods have been. Still, neither is culturally transformative in the way that Jobs’s biggest successes were. Rather than changing everything about our relationship with technology in one or two fell swoops, the Apple Watch has done well because Apple has patiently took something that initially felt like a tiny computer for your wrist and refocused it on fitness and health. Meanwhile, AirPods, delightful though they are, are ultimately an accessory, at least for the time being. And there’s a limit to how much an accessory can reshape human life.
But if Apple hasn’t managed to shift any epochs lately, that’s understandable. Neither has anyone else in the consumer electronics business:
- On the smartphone front, pricey folding phones from Samsung and Microsoft cater to a niche that doesn’t feel like it’s about to explode.
- Amazon’s Alexa has done more than Apple’s Siri to propel AI-infused voice interfaces to prominence, but it hasn’t rendered smartphones any less important.
- Thanks to Facebook’s Oculus, virtual reality has made great strides, but a heck of a lot of people still haven’t strapped on a headset even once.
- On the consumer hardware front, augmented reality has inspired some notorious flops; its successes, such as Pokémon Go and Google Lens, have gained traction by leveraging smartphones rather than replacing them.
- From Facebook and Twitter to TikTok, social media has changed the world over the past decade, but it feels less like an invention than a virus that got out of control.
- You might make the case that Elon Musk’s Tesla has had an Apple-like impact on the automotive industry, but the electrification of passenger vehicles remains a story in progress.
It’s even clearer in retrospect than it was during Jobs’s life that it might be impossible to top the iPhone by coming up with an even more popular, profitable gizmo. Had Jobs gotten another decade as Apple CEO, he might have chosen to pour most of the company’s energy into the evolution and expansion of the iPhone and iPad—just as Cook’s Apple has done. Incremental improvements to existing products, after all, were just as key to Jobs’s success as the great leaps forward.
One other thing: All evidence suggests that Apple hasn’t given up on trying to reinvent additional product categories. It’s just tackling ones that are hyper-ambitious even by its own standards—such as VR/AR headsets and cars—and is happy to chip away in private rather than hype stuff that won’t appear for years. Which means that it’s still too early to declare that we’ve seen the last history-making new Apple product.
The little things
Steve Jobs was not an inventor so much as an editor. None of the products he’s remembered for were the first in their category, and every one of them bulged with work done by people who had skills that Jobs did not possess. But he had a near-superhuman ability to know what to put into a product and what to leave out. He could make the seams between hardware and software nearly vanish. He made hard decisions that were often questioned, but almost always prescient and—eventually—widely imitated.
No single person has taken on that responsibility in the Cook era, and it shows. Compared to earlier days, the company has released more than its share of half-baked products, such as 2013’s iOS 7, whose newly minimalist look felt like a rough draft. In 2014, it had to create a $10,000 Apple Watch to learn that such a device made no sense. Instead of making touch-screen Macs, it replaced the MacBook Pro’s function keys with a skinny touchscreen in 2016, seemingly making very few people happy. Right now, the odd changes which the company decided to make to its Safari browser—and has only partially unwound—seem like an instance of inadequate editing of its raw ideas.
In all these cases, I’m not going to say “Steve Jobs would never have allowed that,” because . . . well, he might have. His own mistakes were often doozies. But present-day Apple does feel like it’s lost the final polish that Jobs gave almost everything.
Still, even if Apple errs in public more than it once did, it usually gets to a good place eventually. In the post-Jobs era, the iPhone lineup has had some false starts—remember the proudly plasticky iPhone 5c?—and grew confusing as Apple added more and more variants. But the four new iPhone 13 models—and the still-available iPhone SE—make for the most comprehensible iPhone line since the days when it consisted of a grand total of one phone. And by making the new iPhones slightly thicker and heavier to allow for larger, longer-lasting batteries, Apple abandoned Jobs’s thinner-is-better instincts to achieve a sensible goal. That’s an infinitely smarter act of editing than asking “what would Steve do?”
Steve Jobs the industry presence
We didn’t just lose Steve Jobs the business executive, strategic thinker, and product polisher 10 years ago. We lost the guy who may have been the single most memorable personality the consumer-tech business ever produced:
- The Steve Jobs who was a direct link to the roots of the PC industry, having cofounded Apple in 1976 at age 21 with Steve Wozniak. (Yes, Jobs and Woz really did sell a VW van and HP calculator, respectively, to fund their startup.)
- The one who could be terrible to deal with, was ignominiously forced out of his own company, and came back more than a decade later far better at his job.
- The one who pulled off a corporate turnaround so improbable that Wired had compiled “101 Ways to Save Apple” without one of them involving Jobs coming back as CEO.
- The one who occasionally issued open letters that sounded nothing like marketing materials.
- The one who read emails from random Apple customers and replied in as few words as possible. (Tim Cook apparently does take customer email seriously, but in a less entertaining fashion.)
When most of us envision Jobs, what we see is the man onstage at the product presentations so inextricably associated with him that they were known as “Stevenotes.” Even if you steadfastly refused to get sucked into his reality distortion field, these demos were remarkably compelling. It wasn’t just because he was one of the best explainers the tech industry has ever seen, or even because he occasionally did reveal stuff that blew your socks off. Up there on stage—often by himself—he came off as human, even vulnerable, in a way that few business executives would choose to make themselves. That was true all along, and even more so in his final years as each appearance was an opportunity for public speculation about his health.
For a few years after Jobs’s death, Apple product launches were overseen by Cook and other longtime Jobs associates, and felt like Stevenotes that had been stripped of their most important ingredient. As people noted with increasing frequency that the same handful of white guys represented Apple at every event, the company began to switch things up, calling on a larger, more diverse group of Apple employees to divvy up the presenting. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to virtual events, the company ventured even further away from the Stevenote approach. Even if it returns to live product launches in 2022, it seems likely that high-production-value canned videos will play a larger part than when almost everything that mattered was happening in front of a live audience.
Steve Jobs is in no danger of being forgotten. But more and more, when Apple does things that he wouldn’t have, it’s not a sign that the company has lost its way. Instead, it’s evidence that Apple is still restlessly looking forward rather than obsessing over its past. And what could be more Steve Jobs-like than that?
New superconducting magnet breaks magnetic field strength records, paving the way for fusion energy
It was a moment three years in the making, based on intensive research and design work: On Sept. 5, for the first time, a large high-temperature superconducting electromagnet was ramped up to a field strength of 20 tesla, the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth. That successful demonstration helps resolve the greatest uncertainty in the quest to build the world’s first fusion power plant that can produce more power than it consumes, according to the project’s leaders at MIT and startup company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).
That advance paves the way, they say, for the long-sought creation of practical, inexpensive, carbon-free power plants that could make a major contribution to limiting the effects of global climate change.
„Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,“ says Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. „The amount of power that is available is really game-changing.“ The fuel used to create fusion energy comes from water, and „the Earth is full of water—it’s a nearly unlimited resource. We just have to figure out how to utilize it.“
Developing the new magnet is seen as the greatest technological hurdle to making that happen; its successful operation now opens the door to demonstrating fusion in a lab on Earth, which has been pursued for decades with limited progress. With the magnet technology now successfully demonstrated, the MIT-CFS collaboration is on track to build the world’s first fusion device that can create and confine a plasma that produces more energy than it consumes. That demonstration device, called SPARC, is targeted for completion in 2025.
„The challenges of making fusion happen are both technical and scientific,“ says Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, which is working with CFS to develop SPARC. But once the technology is proven, he says, „it’s an inexhaustible, carbon-free source of energy that you can deploy anywhere and at any time. It’s really a fundamentally new energy source.“
Whyte, who is the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, says this week’s demonstration represents a major milestone, addressing the biggest questions remaining about the feasibility of the SPARC design. „It’s really a watershed moment, I believe, in fusion science and technology,“ he says.
The sun in a bottle
Fusion is the process that powers the sun: the merger of two small atoms to make a larger one, releasing prodigious amounts of energy. But the process requires temperatures far beyond what any solid material could withstand. To capture the sun’s power source here on Earth, what’s needed is a way of capturing and containing something that hot—100,000,000 degrees or more—by suspending it in a way that prevents it from coming into contact with anything solid.
That’s done through intense magnetic fields, which form a kind of invisible bottle to contain the hot swirling soup of protons and electrons, called a plasma. Because the particles have an electric charge, they are strongly controlled by the magnetic fields, and the most widely used configuration for containing them is a donut-shaped device called a tokamak. Most of these devices have produced their magnetic fields using conventional electromagnets made of copper, but the latest and largest version under construction in France, called ITER, uses what are known as low-temperature superconductors.
The major innovation in the MIT-CFS fusion design is the use of high-temperature superconductors, which enable a much stronger magnetic field in a smaller space. This design was made possible by a new kind of superconducting material that became commercially available a few years ago. The idea initially arose as a class project in a nuclear engineering class taught by Whyte. The idea seemed so promising that it continued to be developed over the next few iterations of that class, leading to the ARC power plant design concept in early 2015. SPARC, designed to be about half the size of ARC, is a testbed to prove the concept before construction of the full-size, power-producing plant.
Until now, the only way to achieve the colossally powerful magnetic fields needed to create a magnetic „bottle“ capable of containing plasma heated up to hundreds of millions of degrees was to make them larger and larger. But the new high-temperature superconductor material, made in the form of a flat, ribbon-like tape, makes it possible to achieve a higher magnetic field in a smaller device, equaling the performance that would be achieved in an apparatus 40 times larger in volume using conventional low-temperature superconducting magnets. That leap in power versus size is the key element in ARC’s revolutionary design.
The use of the new high-temperature superconducting magnets makes it possible to apply decades of experimental knowledge gained from the operation of tokamak experiments, including MIT’s own Alcator series. The new approach uses a well-known design but scales everything down to about half the linear size and still achieves the same operational conditions because of the higher magnetic field.
A series of scientific papers published last year outlined the physical basis and, by simulation, confirmed the viability of the new fusion device. The papers showed that, if the magnets worked as expected, the whole fusion system should indeed produce net power output, for the first time in decades of fusion research.
Martin Greenwald, deputy director and senior research scientist at the PSFC, says unlike some other designs for fusion experiments, „the niche that we were filling was to use conventional plasma physics, and conventional tokamak designs and engineering, but bring to it this new magnet technology. So, we weren’t requiring innovation in a half-dozen different areas. We would just innovate on the magnet, and then apply the knowledge base of what’s been learned over the last decades.“
That combination of scientifically established design principles and game-changing magnetic field strength is what makes it possible to achieve a plant that could be economically viable and developed on a fast track. „It’s a big moment,“ says Bob Mumgaard, CEO of CFS. „We now have a platform that is both scientifically very well-advanced, because of the decades of research on these machines, and also commercially very interesting. What it does is allow us to build devices faster, smaller, and at less cost,“ he says of the successful magnet demonstration.
Proof of the concept
Bringing that new magnet concept to reality required three years of intensive work on design, establishing supply chains, and working out manufacturing methods for magnets that may eventually need to be produced by the thousands.
„We built a first-of-a-kind, superconducting magnet. It required a lot of work to create unique manufacturing processes and equipment. As a result, we are now well-prepared to ramp-up for SPARC production,“ says Joy Dunn, head of operations at CFS. „We started with a physics model and a CAD design, and worked through lots of development and prototypes to turn a design on paper into this actual physical magnet.“ That entailed building manufacturing capabilities and testing facilities, including an iterative process with multiple suppliers of the superconducting tape, to help them reach the ability to produce material that met the needed specifications—and for which CFS is now overwhelmingly the world’s biggest user.
They worked with two possible magnet designs in parallel, both of which ended up meeting the design requirements, she says. „It really came down to which one would revolutionize the way that we make superconducting magnets, and which one was easier to build.“ The design they adopted clearly stood out in that regard, she says.
In this test, the new magnet was gradually powered up in a series of steps until reaching the goal of a 20 tesla magnetic field—the highest field strength ever for a high-temperature superconducting fusion magnet. The magnet is composed of 16 plates stacked together, each one of which by itself would be the most powerful high-temperature superconducting magnet in the world.
„Three years ago we announced a plan,“ says Mumgaard, „to build a 20-tesla magnet, which is what we will need for future fusion machines.“ That goal has now been achieved, right on schedule, even with the pandemic, he says.
Citing the series of physics papers published last year, Brandon Sorbom, the chief science officer at CFS, says „basically the papers conclude that if we build the magnet, all of the physics will work in SPARC. So, this demonstration answers the question: Can they build the magnet? It’s a very exciting time! It’s a huge milestone.“
The next step will be building SPARC, a smaller-scale version of the planned ARC power plant. The successful operation of SPARC will demonstrate that a full-scale commercial fusion power plant is practical, clearing the way for rapid design and construction of that pioneering device can then proceed full speed.
Zuber says that „I now am genuinely optimistic that SPARC can achieve net positive energy, based on the demonstrated performance of the magnets. The next step is to scale up, to build an actual power plant. There are still many challenges ahead, not the least of which is developing a design that allows for reliable, sustained operation. And realizing that the goal here is commercialization, another major challenge will be economic. How do you design these power plants so it will be cost effective to build and deploy them?“
Someday in a hoped-for future, when there may be thousands of fusion plants powering clean electric grids around the world, Zuber says, „I think we’re going to look back and think about how we got there, and I think the demonstration of the magnet technology, for me, is the time when I believed that, wow, we can really do this.“
The successful creation of a power-producing fusion device would be a tremendous scientific achievement, Zuber notes. But that’s not the main point. „None of us are trying to win trophies at this point. We’re trying to keep the planet livable.“
Steve Jobs Summed Up Apple’s Entire Strategy Using Just 6 Bullet Points. Each One Teaches an Amazing Lesson
In a recently published meeting agenda, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs teaches a master class in how to write a strategic plan.
On October 24, 2010, Apple CEO Steve Jobs sent a very important email.
It contained the agenda for the company’s upcoming „Top 100“ retreat, a top secret and super exclusive offsite management meeting that was reserved for 100 of Apple’s most influential employees.
The agenda, part of an email which was recently published in connection with the ongoing Epic v. Apple lawsuit, is long and detailed, with tons of lessons for business leaders. But it’s the first point on the agenda, entitled „2011 Strategy“ and assigned to Jobs himself, that stands out most.
Jobs’s agenda point consists of only six major bullet points, but each one teaches an amazing lesson.
The six points are as follows:
- Who are we?
- What do we do?
- Post PC era
- 2011: Holy War with Google
- 2011: Year of the Cloud
- 2015: New Campus
Let’s break each of them down.
Jobs begins with two very important questions:
- Who are we?
- What do we do?
Upon first glance, these questions might surprise you. After all, Jobs had been back as CEO of Apple for over a decade at this point, and had conducted one of the greatest turnarounds ever.
But Jobs knew well how easy it is to fall from the top. Apple had experienced huge success in the past, only to lose itself in a flurry of products and initiatives.
To keep history from repeating itself, Jobs knew Apple needed to continually question who it was and what it did. It had to clearly identify company leadership, values, and focus — and make sure to align its goals with its desired culture and purpose.
Takeaway: Your company will change as time goes on. Keep questioning yourself, and make those changes intentional, not accidental.
Identify your strengths
The next bullet point, „Post PC era,“ did two important things. First, it early identified the consumer shift of purchasing more mobile devices.
Just as important, though, it highlighted Apple’s strength in this nascent market.
„Apple is the first company to get here,“ Jobs wrote — which was entirely true, as the iPhone and iPad had proven revolutionary. Mobile products now accounted for 66 percent of the company’s revenues, with the iPad alone having outsold the Mac within six months.
The key for future success, as Jobs outlined, would be to leverage this shift through continued improvement of mobile devices, communication, apps, and cloud services — a strategy that Apple is continuing to follow over a decade later and that has transformed it into a trillion-dollar company.
Takeaway: Identify what your company does well in the context of the overall market. Then, double down on doing those things better.
Learn from competitors
The next bullet point encapsulated Jobs’s view of the competition:
2011: Holy War with Google
While it was true that the iPhone and iPad were revolutionary, Google had begun to surpass Apple in some ways — and Jobs knew it. Later in the agenda, he highlighted how Google’s Android operating system excelled at deeply integrating Google’s cloud services, admitting that Android was „way ahead of Apple“ in cloud services for contacts, calendar, and mail.
The goal, then?
„Catch up to Android where we are behind…and leapfrog them.“
Takeaway: Focus on your strengths, but ignore your weaknesses at your own peril.
Focus on one big thing
Jobs next clearly establishes the single most important priority for 2011, which he terms „the year of the cloud.“
Apple „invented“ the digital hub concept, writes Jobs, by using the PC as a hub for digital assets like contacts, calendars, photos, music, and videos. But the digital hub was shifting from the PC to the cloud, and Apple had to move fast.
„Google and Microsoft are further along on the technology,“ he wrote, „but [they] haven’t quite figured it out yet…. [We need to] tie all of our products together, so we further lock customers into our ecosystem.“
Identifying and executing on this priority was pivotal in helping shape Apple’s strategy for years to come, and in helping the company keep up with — and, in some ways, surpass — its competitors.
Takeaway: There are countless things you could be working on, a few things you should be working on, and only one thing that should be your top priority.
Figure it out, and make sure everyone is working to support it.
Look to the future
Jobs’s final bullet point is only three words:
2015: New Campus
Of course, this was a reference to what eventually became „Apple Park,“ the company’s 175-acre campus and futuristic office complex that now serves as the its corporate headquarters. This was one of the final projects pitched by Jobs, a workplace that would embody the spirit of Apple and inspire employees to continue to „think different.“
Sadly, Jobs didn’t live to see construction on Apple’s new campus begin. However, he set the plans in motion and was heavily involved in the design of the campus, reportedly specifying even small details about building materials and other features.
And in April 2017, two years later than originally planned, Apple Park was opened to employees.
Takeaway: Focus on the here and now. But always, always plan for the future.
There it is.
A single agenda topic. Six major bullet points. Just enough words to form a few paragraphs, at most.
Yet, those few words contain a master class in business strategy:
1. Be intentional
2. Identify your strengths
3. Learn from competitors
4. Focus on one big thing
5. Look to the future
Take a page out of Steve Jobs’s playbook and use those five steps to help plan your business strategy.
How Tim Cook has grown the Apple empire in his decade as CEO
When Tim Cook took over as chief executive of Apple, it was a corporate transition unlike any other. He stepped out from the shadow of one of the best-known American CEOs and took the reins of one of the world’s biggest tech companies facing some uncertainty about how much more successful it could be.
The growth of services
DuckDuckGo’s Quest to Prove Online Privacy Is Possible
I was driving up through Pennsylvania last summer, somewhere along US Route 15 between Harrisburg and Williamsport, when I saw a familiar face: a goofy cartoon duck wearing a green bowtie. It was the logo for DuckDuckGo, the privacy-focused search engine, along with a message: “Tired of Being Tracked Online? We Can Help.”
The sight of a tech company on a billboard in rural Pennsylvania was surprising enough to lodge in my memory. Highways in and out of Silicon Valley may be lined with billboards advertising startups, where they can be easily spied by VCs and other industry influencers, but the post-industrial communities hugging the Susquehanna River will never be confused with Palo Alto. Far more typical are road signs advertising a fireworks store, a sex shop, or Donald Trump. I found it hard to imagine that the other drivers on the road were really the audience for an internet company that occupies a very specific niche.
It turns out DuckDuckGo—itself based in Valley Forge, PA, about 90 miles east of Route 15—knew something I didn’t. According to the company’s market research, just about every demographic wants more data privacy: young, old, male, female, urban, rural. Public polling backs that up, though the results vary based on how the question is asked. One recent survey found that “93 percent of Americans would switch to a company that prioritizes data privacy if given the option.” Another reported that 57 percent of Americans would give up personalization in exchange for privacy. Perhaps most telling are the early returns on Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency system, which prompts iOS users to opt in to being tracked by third-party apps rather than handing over their data by default, as has long been standard. According to some estimates, only a tiny minority of users are choosing to allow tracking.
The problem for a company like DuckDuckGo, then, isn’t making people care about privacy; it’s convincing them that privacy is possible. Many consumers, the company has found, have basically thrown up their hands in resignation, concluding that there’s no way out of the modern surveillance economy. It’s easy to see why. Each new story about data privacy, whether it’s about the pervasiveness of tracking, or a huge data breach, or Facebook or Google’s latest violation of user trust, not only underscores the extent of corporate surveillance but also makes it feel increasingly inescapable.
DuckDuckGo is on a mission to prove that giving up one’s privacy online is not, in fact, inevitable. Over the past several years, it has expanded far beyond its original search engine to provide a suite of free privacy-centric tools, including a popular browser extension, that plug up the various holes through which ad tech companies and data brokers spy on us as we browse the internet and use our phones. This year it will roll out some major new products and features, including a desktop browser and email privacy protection. And it will spend more money than it ever has on advertising to get the word out. The long-term goal is to turn DuckDuckGo into an all-in-one online privacy shield—what Gabriel Weinberg, the company’s founder and CEO, calls “the ‘easy button’ for privacy.”
“People want privacy, but they feel like it’s impossible to get,” Weinberg says. “So our main challenge is to make the idea that you can get simple privacy protection credible.”
Whether that mission succeeds could have consequences far beyond DuckDuckGo’s bottom line. DuckDuckGo is operating to some extent in the shadow of Apple, which has already made privacy a core part of its pitch to customers. But DuckDuckGo’s ambition is to provide a suite of protections that are even more extensive and intuitive than Apple’s. And it is offering them to the millions of people who don’t want or can’t afford to use Apple products: Google’s Android operating system accounts for about 50 percent of the mobile market in the US and more than 70 percent worldwide. Perhaps most important, if DuckDuckGo succeeds at bringing simple privacy to the masses, it will mean that the future of privacy might not depend on the relative benevolence of just two corporate overlords.
Founded in 2008, DuckDuckGo is best known for its search engine. Which means that it has always been defined as a challenger to Google. It has not shied away from the comparison. In 2011, Weinberg, then the company’s sole employee, took out an ad on a billboard in San Francisco that declared, “Google tracks you. We don’t.” That branding—Google, but private—has served the company well in the years since.
“The only way to compete with Google is not to try to compete on search results,” says Brad Burnham, a partner at Union Square Ventures, which gave DuckDuckGo its first and only Series A funding in 2011. When the upstart launched, Google already controlled 90 percent of the market and was spending billions of dollars, and collecting data on billions of users, to make its product even better. DuckDuckGo, however, “offered something that Google couldn’t offer,” Burnham says: “They offered not to track you. And Google’s entire business model is, obviously, built on the ability to do that, so Google couldn’t respond by saying, ‘OK, we won’t track you either.’”
Neither DuckDuckGo nor anyone else came close to stopping Google from dominating search. Today, Google’s market share still hovers around the 90 percent range. But the pie is so enormous—advertisers spent $60 billion on search advertising in the US alone last year, according to eMarketer—that there’s quite a bit of money in even a tiny slice. DuckDuckGo has been profitable since 2014.
Like Google Search, DuckDuckGo makes money by selling ads on top of people’s search results. The difference is that while the ads you see when searching on Google are generally targeted to you in part based on your past searches, plus what Google knows about your behavior more broadly, DuckDuckGo’s are purely “contextual”—that is, they are based only on the search term. That’s because DuckDuckGo doesn’t know anything about you. It doesn’t assign you an identifier or keep track of your search history in order to personalize your results.
This non-creepy approach only protects you, however, while you’re on DuckDuckGo. “You’re anonymous on the search engine, but once you click off, now you’re going to other websites where you’re less anonymous,” Weinberg says. “How can we protect you there?”
DuckDuckGo’s first answer to that question rolled out in 2018, with the launch of a desktop browser extension and mobile browser that block third-party trackers by default wherever a user goes on the internet. It was good timing: 2018 was a banner year for raising privacy awareness. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal broke that spring. The GDPR took effect in Europe, throwing into relief how little the US regulates data collection. That summer, the Associated Press revealed that many Google services were storing your location data even if you explicitly opted out. Data collection and privacy were firmly in the national conversation. Since then, congressional inquiries, antitrust lawsuits, Netflix documentaries, and a growing feud between Apple and Facebook have kept it there.
“One of the funny things about DuckDuckGo is that the single best marketing we’ve ever had has been the gaffes that Google and Facebook have made over the years,” says Burnham. “Cambridge Analytica, for instance, was a huge driver of adoption for DuckDuckGo. There is an increasing awareness of how this business model works and what it means—not just in terms of the loss of privacy and agency over our own data, but also what it means for the vibrance and success of an open marketplace.”
Awareness is one thing, action another. DuckDuckGo was in position to capitalize on the rising tide of scandal because it has a reputation for building products that work. In 2019, for instance, it added a feature to its extension and browser that directs users to encrypted versions of websites whenever possible, preventing would-be hackers or ISPs from, say, looking over your shoulder as you type a password into a web page. While other encryption tools work by manually creating lists of tens of thousands of websites in need of an upgrade, DuckDuckGo crawled the internet to automatically populate a list of more than 12 million sites. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently announced that it would incorporate DuckDuckGo’s dataset for its own HTTPS Everywhere extension. Similarly, Apple uses DuckDuckGo’s Tracker Radar dataset—a continuously updated, publicly available list of trackers assembled using open-source code—for Safari’s tracking prevention.
Weinberg is particularly proud of DuckDuckGo’s tracker prevention. Surveillance is so built into the infrastructure of the web that many sites will stop functioning if you block all cookies. Take Google Analytics, which is found on the vast majority of websites. “If you just straight-up block Google Analytics, you’ll break sites,” Weinberg says. As a result, mainstream browsers with tracking prevention, like Safari and Firefox, allow trackers to load, then try to restrict the data they can gather.
“They’re more inclined to err on the side of not breaking websites,” explains Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “They will try and do this middle ground thing where they’ll load resources but restrict what Google can do once it’s in your browser.”
The problem is that even allowing a tracker to load in the first place can allow it to gather highly specific data about the user, including their IP address. So DuckDuckGo, like some other privacy extensions, works differently. It simply prevents the cookie from loading at all. To avoid the broken-site problem, it replaces some trackers with a dummy that essentially tricks the site into thinking the cookie has loaded, a technique called “surrogates” pioneered by the ad blocker uBlock Origin.
Ultimately, DuckDuckGo probably owes its success less to the technical aspects of its tracker prevention, which very few people are in any position to understand, than to the fact that the company does a pretty good job honoring its slogan: “Privacy, simplified.” Its products don’t require a user to toggle any elaborate settings. They simply include encryption, tracker blocking, and private search automatically.
Since their launch, the extension and mobile browser have experienced rapid user growth. According to DuckDuckGo, the extension and browser have together been downloaded more than 100 million times since 2018, and more than half of those downloads took place over the past twelve months. That growth has in turn helped juice the use of the original search engine, which is built into mobile app. The company estimates that its search user count doubled over the past year to between 70 and 100 million. (It’s an estimate because they don’t track users.) According to StatCounter, DuckDuckGo now has the second highest share of the US mobile search market, edging out Bing and Yahoo. (A distant second, that is: 2 percent to Google’s 94 percent.) DuckDuckGo says its annual revenue is over $100 million.
This year, the company plans to significantly expand its privacy offerings. It is introducing a desktop browser, incorporating the same features as the existing mobile app. Currently, even someone with the DuckDuckGo privacy extension can’t stop Google from gathering some data on them if they’re using Chrome, for example.
DuckDuckGo is also adding two new features to its existing extension and mobile app. The first is email privacy protection. Weinberg says that his company’s researchers found that some 70 percent of emails have some sort of tracker embedded in them. That includes not just corporate promotional emails, but just about any newsletter or fundraising email that’s sent using an automated service. In nearly a third of those cases, Weinberg says, the trackers are sending users’ plaintext email addresses over the internet, potentially exposing them to any number of marketers, data brokers, and shadier actors. The email tool is designed to thwart that by forwarding messages through a DuckDuckGo email address, which will remove the trackers before sending them along to inboxes. It also will allow people to generate random email addresses whenever they have to use email to sign up for something. (Apple recently announced a similar feature for the Mail app on iOS.) In theory, DuckDuckGo could have created its own email client, but Weinberg recognizes getting users to switch their email providers is prohibitively difficult.
“Our goal is simplicity, right?” he says. “We want to make privacy simple and seamless without sacrifice for users.”
The final new tech DuckDuckGo is unveiling this year operates on a similar principle. A new feature within its Android app will operate in the background, even when the app itself is not in use, to block third parties from tracking you through any other app on your phone. It does that by using the phone’s VPN permission to route all traffic through DuckDuckGo, so that, as with the email trackers, it can block requests from anyone on its tracker list before they have an opportunity to gather any user data. (Again, this is somewhat analogous to Apple’s App Tracking Transparency on iOS. It will not stop first-party data collection, meaning the app you’re using can still collect your data. But it won’t be able to pass that data through to other companies, including Facebook, which currently tracks users through a vast number of unrelated apps.)
Taken together, the new features, which the company says will be available in beta this summer, represent DuckDuckGo’s evolving mission to create what Weinberg calls “the privacy layer of the internet.”
“The ideal case for that from a user perspective is, you download DuckDuckGo and you’re just protected wherever you go online,” he says. “We’re obviously not there yet, but that’s the product vision.”
So, about those billboards.
The company’s reliance on old-school advertising mediums—in addition to billboards, DuckDuckGo is partial to radio ads—is partly of necessity: As a privacy-focused business, it refuses to do any microtargeted online advertising. (Even when it advertises on a social media site like Twitter, Weinberg says it doesn’t set any demographic targeting parameters.) But the strategy also stems from the company’s market research, which has found that precise targeting would be a waste of money anyway.
“People who care about privacy, who act on privacy, who would adopt a DuckDuckGo product—they’re actually not a very niche audience,” says Zac Pappis, head of the company’s user insight team. “People who act and care about privacy don’t fall into a particular age group or demographic or have a particular psychographic background, so that makes them easier to reach.”
To put it in advertising parlance, this means DuckDuckGo spends its marketing budget on brand awareness. Ordinary people around the country don’t need to be convinced to care about privacy, the theory goes—they just need to learn that a solution exists. “Our current top business priority is to be the household name for simple online privacy protection,” Weinberg says. “So when you think about privacy online, we want you to turn to DuckDuckGo.”
To that end, the company is investing in its biggest marketing blitz to date this year, devoting tens of millions to an advertising push—so expect more billboards and more radio ads during those summer road trips. Weinberg believes the time is ripe. He points out the fact that tech giants like Apple, Facebook, and Google have all been raising the salience of privacy through very public battles over their policies and products. Plus, the ongoing antitrust lawsuits against the tech giants will draw more attention to those companies’ business practices, including around user privacy. One of the cases, brought by the Department of Justice, could even give DuckDuckGo a direct boost by preventing Google from being set as the default search engine on phones.
DuckDuckGo has competition. Companies like Ghostery offer tracking protection. Brave has a well-regarded privacy browser. The Netherlands-based Startpage offers search without tracking. But in the US, at least, DuckDuckGo has a strong position in the privacy market. In a sector where users have to trust that your product works the way you say it does, a decade-long track record without any privacy scandals establishes important credibility. “They’re probably the biggest name right now, probably because of the popularity of their search engine,” says Jon Callas, director of technology products at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But being the biggest name among people with a special interest in online privacy still amounts to being a big fish in a small pond. Weinberg believes DuckDuckGo can change that. He is convinced that the pond is actually huge. It just doesn’t know it yet.
Tesla Is Dead (And Elon Musk Knows It) – The $600+ billion company is a game-changer, but it won’t exist in 50 years
I will never forget the first time I drove a Tesla Model X. My producer rented one when we met up with a movie star to record narration for a film I was directing. “This better not be tacked onto the film budget,” I griped.
He grinned and tossed me the Tesla-shaped key. “It’s your birthday present.”
I dropped the body to its most ground-hugging setting, set the acceleration to Ludicrous Mode, and roared out of the airport. It was one of the most exhilarating rides of my entire life — almost as fun as the time I drove 150MPH with no plates and no insurance on a toll road as an idiot teenager.
Driving a Tesla X is a pure pleasure, but it doesn’t mean Tesla Inc. will survive.
In fact, forces are aligning that could easily wipe Tesla off the map. Here are seven reasons why Tesla probably won’t exist fifty years from now:
1. It doesn’t make money from selling cars
As professor Scott Galloway recently pointed out, if you subtract Tesla’s Bitcoin ponzi profits and emissions credits, Tesla actually loses money:
“Tesla posts an accounting profit, but in its most recent quarter, it was emissions credits (a regulatory program that rewards auto companies for making electric rather than gas vehicles) and — wait for it — $101 million in bitcoin trading profits that morphed earnings from a miss to a beat. What Tesla did not do last quarter was produce a single one of its two premium cars, the Model S or the Model X.”
Losing money doesn’t seem to worry speculators during peaks of irrational exuberance, but when the rubber meets the road and the stock bubble pops and corporate credit constricts, real investors will want no part in money-burning businesses.
And it won’t take a full market meltdown for Tesla to become a money-losing entity: If the global crypto ponzi bubble pops due to more countries banning or regulating it, or regulators do away with emissions credits, Tesla once again becomes a money-bleeding company.
2. Elon Musk is too distracted to remain CEO
One thing you’ve got to appreciate about Elon Musk is that he’s voraciously curious and wants to solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges.
But that’s not who you want as CEO of a publicly-traded company.
One of the reasons you don’t see most Fortune 500 CEOs on Joe Rogan and SNL and, you know, running five other companies, is because they’re heads-down focused on running one company. When he ran Disney, Bob Iger woke up at 4:15 AM every day. Apple’s Tim Cook gets up at 3:45 AM and reads 800 emails. Elon Musk also puts in absurd hours — I personally question if sleep deprivation is what rational shareholders are looking for in any CEO — but in Elon’s case, it’s spread across too many projects to be sustainable for decades to come.
3. Elon is already diversifying
Have you ever heard of Dan Schulman?
He’s a former AMEX guy, now the CEO of Paypal.
Elon is brilliant at getting out early and pivoting hard.
He did it with Zip2, and then Paypal, and now he’s putting out feelers to do it with Tesla:
The Boring Company.
BTC and DOGE. (Side note: Elon knows he’s the king memer and could easily add $100 billion to his net worth by launching his own altcoin.)
It’s only a matter of time before one of these side hustles takes off and he steps down as Tesla’s CEO, if only because…
4. More regulation and oversight are on the way
Elon once again put Tesla in the crosshairs when he started manipulating the cryptocurrency markets.
Never forget how close he came to getting banned from leading a publicly-traded company by the SEC.
If he keeps up these sorts of shenanigans — and he needs to in order to keep the stock price pumped — it’s only a matter of time before government regulators and progressive politicians renew their efforts to rein him in.
Speaking of lawsuits: There are already rumblings that his SNL Asperger’s announcement should have been disclosed to investors — when the stock tanks, expect to see this admission somewhere in the shareholder lawsuit, whether it’s fair grounds or not.
5. The stock price is wildly overvalued
Cue the angry comments from hodlers. (But please note that I automatically delete comments if the poster doesn’t disclose their TSLA holdings.)
As a sound investment, $TSLA stock is one of the worst picks in the world. As a fun gamble/speculation, it’s one of the best. But, just like Bitcoin, small investors are going to lose hundreds of billions of dollars when the price bubble pops.
Because let’s face it: Tesla is a story stock.
Don’t believe me? Just look at who’s been buying shares:
Tesla stock is clearly being pumped by unsophisticated investors who haven’t done their due diligence regarding the company’s actual long-term worth.
The end result: When thousands of Tesla speculators lose their life savings, many will turn their backs on the company, if not become actively hostile.
What is $TSLA actually worth?
First, we need some context. The price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio is considered the benchmark number for comparing one company’s stock price to another. The ratio is based on the current stock price divided by the trailing 12-month earnings per share. If a stock price is $10/share, and the P/E ratio is 10, it means that company is earning $1 per share. If you buy a $10 share with a P/E of 20, it’ll roughly take you 20 years to break even.
- Warren Buffett likes to buy stocks with a P/E of around 12.
- The S&P 500’s long-term median P/E ratio is around 15.
- The S&P 500’s current P/E ratio is around 44 — nearly triple its century-long average — despite the pandemic and a looming joblessness crisis. (#Bubble)
- Apple’s P/E is typically <30.
- Amazon hovers around 60.
Tesla’s P/E ratio is currently over 600.
That’s $0.99 worth of earnings for every $625 invested. Would you buy a business with an ROI of 0.001584%? Would you acquire a company that will take 600+ years to break even?
Cue the irrational exuberancers: “But Tesla’s future potential is huge!”
No, it’s not, not compared to its current price. To fall in line with the S&P’s historical averages and provide a reasonable rate of real return, Tesla would need to 40X its earnings. To provide a 10% annual return, it would need to 63X its earnings. Well over $2 trillion in annual revenue… 4+X more revenue than the largest revenue-earning company on earth. Not gonna happen.
Objectively, Tesla is wildly overpriced even compared to the overall market bubble. It’s a double bubble — the overall market bubble + the Musk fanboy story stock bubble. Tesla may very well be 13Xs better than the average S&P company right now, but that just means Tesla’s price bubble is that much more inflated once you scrub out all the irrational exuberance.
Tesla’s market cap is currently over $600 billion. If it traded at the same P/E as Amazon — arguably one of the strongest companies on earth — Tesla’s market cap drops to $60 billion. If you compare Tesla to Apple, which is a fair comparison and a far more rational P/E, it means that in reality, Tesla is probably only worth a measly $20 billion.
6. Volkswagen+ will come roaring back
To put things in perspective, Tesla’s market cap is currently higher than Mercedes, BMW, GM, Ferrari, and Ford, plus all the major airlines… combined.
But does Tesla have more customers, wider distribution, better engineers, deeper pockets, and more political connections than the rest of the auto and airline industries?
All his major competitors have deeper capital pools, wider distribution networks, and far more customers. Musk has nowhere near the political power. And the innovation gap is closing rapidly. That’s why Elon is constantly seeking new capital and pulling out all the stops to keep pumping the stock, even going so far as to manipulate people’s psychology through stock splits.
Elon Musk has unquestionably (and rightly) created a Thucydides Trap in the automotive industry, but is Tesla really the Athens that can best Sparta?
The question is almost irrelevant because another company is about to out-Athens Tesla and stuff Elon in his own Thucydides trap:
7. Apple will drop an atomic bomb
When Apple releases an electric car — and you can bet your bottom dollar it will — we can safely assume it will rival Tesla for looks and coolness and will likely beat it on price, too.
Follow the money with me…
- When Apple makes a car play, it could easily pop Tesla’s 600 P/E bubble…
- If Tesla deflates to an Apple-level P/E of 30, Tesla is suddenly only worth $20 billion…
- Which makes it instantly ripe for acquisition by one of the majors, be it Apple, Amazon, BMW, Mercedes, or even an old-school company like GM. (Never forget: Ford once bought Jaguar and Fiat once owned Maserati.)
To be clear, Tesla is an amazing company at a $20 billion valuation, and if Elon can’t keep the $TLSA stock price inflated indefinitely, an acquisition is inevitable. Never mind the bite in Apple’s logo… someone could chomp Tesla whole.
I adore Tesla. Like Russia and HBO, it punches way above its weight.
I also like Elon, minus his market manipulation. He’s an extremely important person in the carmaking space. I’ll say it loudly: Elon Musk is the best thing to happen to the auto industry since Henry Ford. As a maverick agitator, he awoke the slumbering giants who’d happily relied on fossil fuel combustion for more than a century. We’re better for having him.
But, in the same way that Paypal will continue to lose ground to companies like Wise and Stripe, expect Tesla to lose ground to Volkswagen and Apple and whatever innovators come next. If things play out the way I predict regarding an eventual acquisition, fifty years from now Tesla probably won’t even exist.
In the meantime, don’t buy into the stock hype and endanger your family’s future.
Just rent a Model X for a weekend and enjoy the ride.
John Deere turned tractors into computers — what’s next?
of our themes on Decoder is that basically everything is a computer now, and farming equipment like tractors and combines are no different. My guest this week is Jahmy Hindman, chief technology officer at John Deere, the world’s biggest manufacturer of farming machinery. And I think our conversation will surprise you.
Jahmy told me that John Deere employs more software engineers than mechanical engineers now, which completely surprised me. But the entire business of farming is moving toward something called precision agriculture, which means farmers are closely tracking where seeds are planted, how well they’re growing, what those plants need, and how much they yield.
The idea, Jahmy says, is to have each plant on a massive commercial farm tended with individual care — a process which requires collecting and analyzing a massive amount of data. If you get it right, precision agriculture means farmers can be way more efficient — they can get better crop yields with less work and lower costs.
The idea, Jahmy says, is to have each plant on a massive commercial farm tended with individual care — a process which requires collecting and analyzing a massive amount of data. If you get it right, precision agriculture means farmers can be way more efficient — they can get better crop yields with less work and lower costs.
But as Decoder listeners know by now, turning everything into computers means everything has computer problems now. Like all that farming data: who owns it? Where is it processed? How do you get it off the tractors without reliable broadband networks? What format is it in? If you want to use your John Deere tractor with another farming analysis vendor, how easy is that? Is it easy enough?
And then there are the tractors themselves — unlike phones, or laptops, or even cars, tractors get used for decades. How should they get upgraded? How can they be kept secure? And most importantly, who gets to fix them when they break?
John Deere is one of the companies at the center of a nationwide reckoning over the right to repair. Right now, tech companies like Samsung and Apple and John Deere all get to determine who can repair their products and what official parts are available.
And because these things are all computers, these manufacturers can also control the software to lock out parts from other suppliers. But it’s a huge deal in the context of farming equipment, which is still extremely mechanical, often located far away from service providers and not so easy to move, and which farmers have been repairing themselves for decades. In fact, right now the prices of older, pre-computerized tractors are skyrocketing because they’re easier to repair.
Half of the states in the country are now considering right to repair laws that would require manufacturers to disable software locks and provide parts to repair shops, and a lot of it is being driven — in a bipartisan way — by the needs of farmers.
John Deere is famously a tractor company. You make a lot of equipment for farmers, for construction sites, that sort of thing. Give me the short version of what the chief technology officer at John Deere does.
[As] chief technology officer, my role is really to try to set the strategic direction from a technology perspective for the company, across both our agricultural products as well as our construction, forestry, and road-building products. It’s a cool job. I get to look out five, 10, 15, 20 years into the future and try to make sure that we’re putting into place the pieces that we need in order to have the technology solutions that are going to be important for our customers in the future.
One of the reasons I am very excited to have you on Decoder is there are a lot of computer solutions in your products. There’s hardware, software, services that I think of as sort of traditional computer company problems. Do you also oversee the portfolio of technologies that [also] make combines more efficient and tractor wheels move faster?
We’ve got a centrally-organized technology stack organization. We call it the intelligent solutions group, and its job is really to do exactly that. It’s to make sure that we’re developing technologies that can scale across the complete organization, across those combines you referenced, and the tractors and the sprayers, and the construction products, and deploy that technology as quickly as possible.
One of the things The Verge wrestles with almost every day is the question of, “What is a computer?” We wrestle with it in very small and obvious ways — we argue about whether the iPad or an Xbox is a computer. Then you can zoom all the way out: we had Jim Farley, who’s the CEO of Ford, on Decoder a couple of weeks ago, and he and I talked about how Ford’s cars are effectively rolling computers now.
Is that how you see a tractor or a combine or construction equipment — that these are gigantic computers that have big mechanical functions as well?
They absolutely are. That’s what they’ve become over time. I would call them mobile sensor suites that have computational capability, not only on-board, but to your point, off-board as well. They are continuously streaming data from whatever it is — let’s say the tractor and the planter — to the cloud. We’re doing computational work on that data in the cloud, and then serving that information, those insights, up to farmers, either on their desktop computer or on a mobile handheld device or something like that.
As much as they are doing productive work in the field, planting as an example, they are also data acquisition and computational devices.
How much of that is in-house at John Deere? How big is the team that is building your mobile apps? Is that something you outsource? Is that something you develop internally? How have you structured the company to enable this kind of work?
We do a significant amount of that work internally. It might surprise you, we have more software development engineers today within Deere than we have mechanical design engineers. That’s kind of mind-blowing for a company that’s 184 years old and has been steeped in mechanical product development, but that’s the case. We do nearly all of our own internal app development inside the four walls of Deere.
That said, our data application for customers in the ag space, for example, is the Operations Center. We do utilize third parties. There’s roughly 184 companies that have been connected to Operations Center through encrypted APIs, that are writing applications against that data for the benefit of the customers, the farmers that want to use those applications within their business.
One of the reasons we’re always debating what a computer is and isn’t is that once you describe something as a computer, you inherit a bunch of expectations about how computers work. You inherit a bunch of problems about how computers work and don’t work. You inherit a bunch of control; API access is a way of exercising control over an ecosystem or an economy.
Have you shifted the way that John Deere thinks about its products? As new abilities are created because you have computerized so much of a tractor, you also increase your responsibility, because you have a bunch more control.
There’s no doubt. We’re having to think about things like security of data, as an example, that previously, 30 years ago, was not necessarily a topic of conversation. We didn’t have competency in it. We’ve had to become competent in areas like that because of exactly the point you’re making, that the product has become more computer-like than conventional tractor-like over time.
That leads to huge questions. You mentioned security. Looking at some of your recent numbers, you have a very big business in China. Thirty years ago, you would export a tractor to China and that’s the end of that conversation. Now, there’s a huge conversation about cybersecurity, data sharing with companies in China, down the line, a set of very complicated issues for a tractor company that 30 years ago wouldn’t have any of those problems. How do you balance all those out?
It’s a different set of problems for sure, and more complicated for geopolitical reasons in the case of China, as you mentioned. Let’s take security as an example. We have gone through the change that many technology companies have had to go through in the space of security, where it’s no longer bolted on at the end, it’s built in from the ground up. So it’s the security-by-design approach. We’ve got folks embedded in development organizations across the company that do nothing every day, other than get up and think about how to make the product more secure, make the datasets more secure, make sure that the data is being used for its intended purposes and only those.
That’s a new skill. That’s a skill that we didn’t have in the organization 20 years ago that we’ve had to create and hire the necessary talent in order to develop that skill set within the company at the scale that we need to develop it at.
Go through a very basic farming season with a John Deere combine and tractor. The farmer wakes up, they say, “Okay, I’ve got a field. I’ve got to plant some seeds. We’ve got to tend to them. Eventually, we’ve got to harvest some plants.” What are the points at which data is collected, what are the points at which it’s useful, and where does the feedback loop come in?
I’m going to spin it a little bit and not start with planting.
I’m going to tell you that the next season for a farmer actually starts at harvest of the previous season, and that’s where the data thread for the next season actually starts. It starts when that combine is in the field harvesting whatever it is, corn, soybeans, cotton, whatever. And the farmer is creating, while they’re running the combine through the field, a dataset that we call a yield map. It is geospatially referenced. These combines are running through the field on satellite guidance. We know where they’re at at any point in time, latitude, longitude, and we know how much they’re harvesting at that point in time.
So we create this three-dimensional map that is the yield across whatever field they happen to be in. That data is the inception for a winter’s worth of work, in the Northern hemisphere, that a farmer goes through to assess their yield and understand what changes they should make in the next season that might optimize that yield even further.
They might have areas within the field that they go into and know they need to change seeding density, or they need to change crop type, or they need to change how much nutrients they provide in the next season. And all of those decisions are going through their head because they [have] to seed in December, they have to order their nutrients in late winter. They’re making those plans based upon that initial dataset of harvest information.
And then they get into the field in the spring, to your point, with a tractor and a planter, and that tractor and planter are taking the prescription that the farmer developed with the yield data that they took from the previous harvest. They’re using that prescription to apply changes to that field in real time as they’re going through the field, with the existing data from the yield map and the data in real time that they’re collecting with the tractor to modify things like seeding rate, and fertilizer rate and all of those things in order to make sure that they’re minimizing the inputs to the operation while at the same time working to maximize the output.
That data is then going into the cloud, and they’re referencing it. For example, that track the tractor and the planter took through the field is being used to inform the sprayer. When the sprayer goes into the field after emergence, when the crops come out of the ground, it’s being used to inform that sprayer what the optimal path is to drive through the field in order to spray only what needs to be sprayed and no more, to damage the crop the least amount possible, all in an effort to optimize that productivity at the end of the year, to make that yield map that is [a] report card at the end of the year for the farmer, to make that turn out to have a better grade.
That’s a lot of data. Who collects it? Is John Deere collecting it? Can I hire a third-party SaaS software company to manage that data for me? How does that part work?
A significant amount of that data is collected on the fly while the machines are in the field, and it’s collected, in the case of Deere machines, by Deere equipment running through the field. There are other companies that create the data, and they can be imported into things like the Deere Operations Center so that you have the data from whatever source that you wanted to collect it from. I think the important thing there is historically, it’s been more difficult to get the data off the machine, because of connectivity limitations, into a database that you can actually do something with it.
Today, the disproportionate number of machines in large agriculture are connected. They’re connected through terrestrial cell networks. They’re streaming data bi-directionally to the cloud and back from the cloud. So that data connectivity infrastructure that’s been built out over the last decade has really enabled two-way communication, and it’s taken the friction out of getting the data off of a mobile piece of equipment. So it’s happening seamlessly for that operator. And that’s a benefit, because they can act on it then in more near real time, as opposed to having to wait for somebody to upload data at some point in the future.
Whose data is this? Is it the farmer’s data? Is it John Deere’s data? Is there a terms of service agreement for a combine? How does that work?
Certainly [there is] a terms of service agreement. Our position is pretty simple. It’s the farmer’s data. They control it. So if they want to share it through an API with somebody that is a trusted adviser from their perspective, they have the right to do that. If they don’t want to share it, they don’t have to do that. It is their data to control.
Is it portable? When I say there are “computer problems” here, can my tractor deliver me, for example, an Excel file?
They certainly can export the data in form factors that are convenient for them, and they do. Spreadsheet math is still routinely done on the farm, and then [they can] utilize the spreadsheet to do some basic data analytics if they want. I would tell you, though, that what’s happening is that the amount of data that is being collected and curated and made available to them to draw insights from is so massive that while you can still use spreadsheets to manipulate some of it, it’s just not tractable in all cases. So that’s why we’re building functionality into things like the Operations Center to help do data analytics and serve up insights to growers.
It’s their data. They can choose to look at the insights or not, but we can serve those insights up to them, because the data analysis part of this problem is becoming significantly larger because the datasets are so complex and large, not to mention the fact that you’ve got more data coming in all the time. Different sensors are being applied. We can measure different things. There [are] unique pieces of information that are coming in and routinely building to overall ecosystems of data that they have at their disposal.
We’ve talked a lot about the feedback loop of data with the machinery in particular. There’s one really important component to this, which is the seeds. There are a lot of seed manufacturers out in the world. They want this data. They have GMO seeds, they can adjust the seeds to different locations. Where do they come into the mix?
The data, from our perspective, is the farmer’s data. They’re the ones who are controlling the access to it. So if they want to share their data with someone, they have that ability to do it. And they do today. They’ll share their yield map with whoever their local seed salesman is and try to optimize the seed variety for the next planting season in the spring.
So that data exists. It’s not ours, so we’re not at liberty to share it with seed companies, and we don’t. It has to come through the grower because it’s their productivity data. They’re the ones that have the opportunity to share it. We don’t.
You do have a lot of data. Maybe you can’t share it widely, but you can aggregate it. You must have a very unique view of climate change. You must see where the foodways are moving, where different kinds of crops are succeeding and failing. What is your view of climate change, given the amount of data that you’re taking in?
The reality is for us that we’re hindered in answering that question by the recency of the data. So, broad-scale data acquisition from production agriculture is really only a five- to 10-year-old phenomenon. So the datasets are getting richer. They’re getting better.
We have the opportunity to see trends in that data across the datasets that exist today, but I think it’s too early. I don’t think the data is mature enough yet for us to be able to draw any conclusions from a climate change perspective with respect to the data that we have.
The other thing that I’ll add is that the data intensity is not universal across the globe. So if you think of climate change on a global perspective, we’ve got a lot of data for North America, a fair amount of data that gets taken by growers in Europe, a little bit in South America, but it’s not rich enough across the global agricultural footprint for us to be able to make any sort of statements about how climate change is impacting it right now.
Is that something you’re interested in doing?
Yes. I couldn’t predict when, but I think that the data will eventually be rich enough for insights to be drawn from it. It’s just not there yet.
Do you think about doing a fully electric tractor? Is that in your technology roadmap, that you’ve got to get rid of these diesel engines?
You’ve got to be interested in EVs right now. And the answer is yes. Whether it’s a tractor or whether it’s some other product in our product line, alternative forms of propulsion, alternative forms of power are definitely something that we’re thinking about. We’ve done it in the past with, I would say, hybrid solutions like a diesel engine driving an electric generator, and then the rest of the machine being electrified from a propulsion perspective.
But we’re just getting to the point now where battery technology, lithium-ion technology, is power-dense enough for us to see it starting to creep into our portfolio. Probably from the bottom up. Lower power density applications first, before it gets into some of the very large production ag equipment that we’ve talked about today.
What’s the timeline to a fully EV combine, do you think?
I think it’ll be a long time for a combine.
I picked the biggest thing I could, basically.
It has got to run 14, 15, 16 hours per day. It’s got a very short window to run in. You can’t take all day to charge it. Those sorts of problems, they’re not insurmountable. They’re just not solved by anything that’s on the roadmap today, from a lithium-ion perspective, anyway.
You and I are talking two days after Apple had its developers’ conference. Apple famously sells hardware, software, services, as an integrated solution. Do you think of John Deere’s equipment as integrated suites of hardware, software, and services, or is it a piece of hardware that spits off data, and then maybe you can buy our services, or maybe buy somebody else’s services?
I think it’s most efficient when we think of it collectively as a system. It doesn’t have to be that way, and one of the differences I would say to an Apple comparison would be the life of the product, the iron product in our case, the tractor or the combine, is measured in decades. It may be in service for a very long time, and so we have to take that into account as we think about the technology [and] apps that we put on top of it, which have a much shorter shelf life. They’re two, three, four, five years, and then they’re obsolete, and the next best thing has come along.
We have to think about the discontinuity that occurs between product buy cycles as a consequence of that. I do think it’s most efficient to think of it all together. It isn’t always necessarily that way. There are lots of farmers that run multi-colored fleets. It’s not Deere only. So we have to be able to provide an opportunity for them to get data off of whatever their product is into the environment that best enables them to make good decisions from it.
Is that how you characterize the competition, multi-colored fleets?
Absolutely, for sure. I would love the world to be completely [John Deere] green, but it’s not quite that way.
On my way to school every day in Wisconsin growing up, I drove by a Case plant. They’re red. John Deere is famously green, Case is red, International Harvester is yellow.
Yep. Case is red, Deere is green, and then there’s a rainbow of colors outside of those two for sure.
Who are your biggest competitors? And are they adopting the same business model as you? Is this an iOS versus Android situation, or is it widely different?
Our traditional competitors in the ag space, no surprise, you mentioned one of them. Case New Holland is a great example. AGCO would be another. I think everybody’s headed down the path of precision agriculture. [It’s] the term that is ubiquitous for where the industry’s headed.
I’m going to paint a picture for you: It’s this idea of enabling each individual plant in production agriculture to be tended to by a master gardener. The master gardener is in this case probably some AI that is enabling a farmer to know exactly what that particular plant needs, when it needs it, and then our equipment provides them the capability of executing on that plan that master gardener has created for that plant on an extremely large scale.
You’re talking about, in the case of corn, for example, 50,000 plants per acre, so a master gardener taking care of 50,000 plants for every acre of corn. That’s where this is headed, and you can picture the data intensity of that. Two hundred million acres of corn ground, times 50,000 plants per acre; each one of those plants is creating data, and that’s the enormity of the scale of production agriculture when you start to get to this plant-by-plant management basis.
Let’s talk about the enormity of the data and the amount of computation — that’s in tension with how long the equipment lasts. Are you upgrading the computers and the tractors every year, or are you just trying to pull the data into your cloud where you can do the intense computation you want to do?
It’s a combination of both, I would tell you. There are components within the vehicles that do get upgraded from time to time. The displays and the servers that operate in the vehicles do go through upgrade cycles within the existing fleet.
There’s enough appetite, Nilay, for technology in agriculture that we’re also seeing older equipment get updated with new technology. So it’s not uncommon today for a customer who’s purchased a John Deere planter that might be 10 years old to want the latest technology on that planter. And instead of buying a new planter, they might buy the upgrade kit for that planter that allows them to have the latest technology on the existing planter that they own. That sort of stuff is happening all the time across the industry.
I would tell you, though, that what is maybe different now versus 10 years ago is the amount of computation that happens in the cloud, to serve up this enormity of data in bite-sized forms and in digestible pieces that actually can be acted upon for the grower. Very little of that is done on-board machines today. Most of that is done off-board.
We cover rural broadband very heavily. There’s some real-time data collection happening here, but what you’re really talking about is that at the end of a session you’ve got a big asynchronous dataset. You want to send it off somewhere, have some computation done to it, and brought back to you so you can react to it.
What is your relationship to the connectivity providers, or to the Biden administration, that is trying to roll out a broadband plan? Are you pushing to get better networks for the next generation of your products, or are you kind of happy with where things are now?
We’re pro-rural broadband, and in particular newer technologies, 5G as an example. And it’s not just for agricultural purposes, let’s just be frank. There’s a ton of benefits that accrue to a society that’s connected with a sufficient network to do things like online schooling, in particular, coming through the pandemic that we’re in the midst of, and hopefully on the tail end of here. I think that’s just highlighted the use cases for connectivity in rural locations.
Agriculture is but one of those, but there’s some really cool feature unlocks that better connectivity, both in terms of coverage and in terms of bandwidth and latency, provide in agriculture. I’ll give you an example. You think of 5G and the ability to get to incredibly low latency numbers. It allows us to do some things from a computational perspective on the edge of the network that today we don’t have the capability to do. We either do it on-board the machine, or we don’t do it at all. So things like serving up the real-time location of where a farmer’s combine is, instead of having to route that data all the way to the cloud and then back to a handheld device that the farmer might have, wouldn’t it be great if we could do that math on the edge and just ping tower to tower and serve it back down and do it really, really quickly. Those are the sorts of use cases that open up when you get to talking about not just connectivity rurally, but 5G specifically, that are pretty exciting.
Are the networks in place to do all the things you want to do?
Globally, the answer is no. Within the US and Canadian markets, coverage improves every day. There are towers that are going up every day and we are working with our terrestrial cell coverage partners across the globe to expand coverage, and they’re responding. They see, generally, the need, in particular with respect to agriculture, for rural connectivity. They understand the power that it can provide [and] the efficiency that it can derive into food production globally. So they are incentivized to do that. And they’ve been good partners in this space. That said, they recognize that there are still gaps and there’s still a lot of ground to cover, literally in some cases, with connectivity solutions in rural locations.
You mentioned your partners. The parallels to a smartphone here are strong. Do you have different chipsets for AT&T and Verizon? Can you activate your AT&T plan right from the screen in the tractor? How does that work?
AT&T is our dominant partner in North America. That is our go-to, primarily from a coverage perspective. They’re the partner that we’ve chosen that I think serves our customers the best in the most locations.
Do you get free HBO Max if you sign up?
[laughs] Unfortunately, no.
They’re putting it everywhere. You have no idea.
I look at the broadband gap everywhere. You mentioned schooling. We cover these very deep consumer needs. On the flip side, you need to run a lot of fiber to make 5G work, especially with the low latency that you’re talking about. You can’t have too many nodes in the way. Do you support millimeter wave 5G on a farm?
Yeah, it is something we’ve looked at. It’s intriguing. How you scale it is the question. I think if we could crack that nut, it would be really interesting.
Just for listeners, an example of millimeter wave if you’re unfamiliar — you’re standing on just the right street corner in New York City, you could get gigabit speeds to a phone. You cross the street, and it goes away. That does not seem tenable on a farm.
That’s right. Not all data needs to be transmitted at the same rate. Not to cover the broad acreage, but you can envision a case where potentially, when you come into range of millimeter wave, you dump a bunch of data all at once. And then when you’re out of range, you’re still collecting data and transmitting it slower perhaps. But having the ability to have millimeter wave type of bandwidth is pretty intriguing for being able to take opportunistic advantage of it when it’s available.
What’s something you want to do that the network isn’t there for you to do yet?
I think that the biggest piece is just a coverage answer from my perspective. We intentionally buffer data on the vehicle in places where we don’t have great coverage in order to wait until that machine has coverage, in order to send the data. But the reality is that means that a grower is waiting in some cases 30 minutes or an hour until the data is synced up in the cloud and something actionable has been done with it and it’s back down to them. And by that point in time, the decision has already been made. It’s not useful because it’s time sensitive. I think that’s probably the biggest gap that we have today. It’s not universal. It happens in pockets and in geographies, but where it happens, the need is real. And those growers don’t benefit as much as growers that do have areas of good coverage.
Is that improvement going as fast as you’d like? Is that a place where you’re saying to the Biden administration, whoever it might be, “Hey, we’re missing out on opportunities because there aren’t the networks we need to go faster.”
It is not going as fast as we would like, full stop. We should be moving faster in that space. Just to tease the thought out a little bit, maybe it’s not just terrestrial cell. Maybe it’s Starlink, maybe it’s a satellite-based type of infrastructure that provides that coverage for us in the future. But it’s certainly not moving at a pace that’s rapid enough for us, given the appetite for data that growers have and what they’ve seen as an ability for that data to significantly optimize their operations.
Have you talked to the Starlink folks?
We have. It’s super interesting. It’s an intriguing idea. The question for us is a mobile one. All of our devices are mobile. Tractors are driving around a field, combines are driving around a field. You get into questions around, what does the receiver need to look like in order to make that work? It’s an interesting idea at this point. I’m ever the optimist, glass-half-full sort of person. I think it’s conceivable that in the not too distant future, that could be a very viable option for some of these locations that are underserved with terrestrial connectivity today.
Walk me through the pricing model of a tractor. These things are very expensive. They’re hundreds of thousands of dollars. What is the recurring cost for an AT&T plan necessary to run that tractor? What is the recurring cost for your data services that you provide? How does that all break down?
Our data services are free today, interestingly enough. Free in the sense [of] the hosting of the data in the cloud and the serving up of that data through Operations Center. If you buy a piece of connected Deere equipment, that service is part of your purchase. I’ll just put it that way.
The recurring expense on the consumer side of things for the connectivity is not unlike what you would experience for a cell phone plan. It’s pretty similar. The difference is for large growers, it’s not just a single cell phone.
They might have 10, 15, 20 devices that are all connected. So we do what we can to make sure that the overhead associated with all of those different connected devices is minimized, but it’s not unlike what you’d experience with an iPhone or an Android device.
Do you have large growers in pockets where the connectivity is just so bad, they’ve had to resort to other means?
We have a multitude of ways of getting data off of mobile equipment. Cell is but one. We’re also able to take it off with Wi-Fi, if you can find a hotspot that you can connect to. Growers also routinely use a USB stick, when all else fails, that works regardless. So we make it possible no matter what their connectivity situation is to get the data off.
But to the point we already talked about, the less friction you’ve got in that system to get the data off, the more data you end up pushing. The more data you push, the more insights you can generate. The more insights you generate, the more optimal your operation is. So to the extent that you don’t have cell connectivity, we do see the intensity of the data usage, it tracks with connectivity.
So if your cloud services are free with the purchase of a connected tractor, is that built into the price or the lease agreement of the tractor for you on your P&L? You’re just saying, “We’re giving this away for free, but baking it into the price.”
Can you buy a tractor without that stuff for cheaper?
You can buy products that aren’t connected that do not have a telematics gateway or the cell connection, absolutely. It is uncommon, especially in large ag. I would hesitate to throw a number at you at what the take rate is, but it’s standard equipment in all of our large agricultural products. That said, you can still get it without that if you need to.
How long until these products just don’t have steering wheels and seats and Sirius radios in them? How long until you have a fully autonomous farm?
I love that question. [With] a fully autonomous farm, you’ve got to draw some boundaries around it in order to make it digestible. I think we could have fully autonomous tractors in low single digit years. I’ll leave it a little bit gray just to let the mind wander a little bit.
Taking the cab completely off the tractor, I think, is a ways away, only because the tractor gets used for lots of things that it may not be programmed for, from an autonomous perspective, to do. It’s sort of a Swiss Army knife in a farm environment. But that operatorless operation in, say, fall tillage or spring planting, we’re right on the doorstep of that. We’re knocking on the door of being able to do it.
It’s due to some really interesting technology that’s come together all in one place at one time. It’s the confluence of high capability-compute onboard machines. So we’re putting GPUs on machines today to do vision processing that would blow your mind. Nvidia GPUs are not just for the gaming community or the autonomous car community. They’re happening on tractors and sprayers and things too. So that’s one stream of technology that’s coming together with advanced algorithms. Machine learning, reinforcement learning, convolutional neural networks, all of that going into being able to mimic the human sight capability from a mechanical and computational perspective. That’s come together to give us the ability to start seriously considering taking an operator out of the cab of the tractor.
One of the things that is different, though, for agriculture versus maybe the on-highway autonomous cars, is that tractors don’t just go from point A to point B. Their mission in life is not just to transport. It’s to do productive work. They’re pulling a tillage tool behind them or pulling a planter behind them planting seed. So we not only have to be able to automate the driving of the tractor, but we have to automate the function that it’s doing as well, and make sure that it’s doing a great job of doing the tillage operation that normally the farmer would be observing in the cab of the tractor. Now we have to do that and be able to ascertain whether or not that job quality that’s happening as a consequence of the tractor going through the field is meeting the requirements or not.
What’s the challenge there?
I think it’s the variety of jobs. In this case, let’s take the tractor example again — it’s not only is it doing the tillage right with this particular tillage tool, but a farmer might use three or four different tillage tools in their operation. They all have different use cases. They all require different artificial intelligence models to be trained and to be validated. So scaling out across all of those different conceivable operations, I think is the biggest challenge.
You mentioned GPUs. GPUs are hard to get right now.
Everything’s hard to get right now.
How is the chip shortage affecting you?
It’s impacting us. Weekly, I’m in conversations with semiconductor manufacturers trying to get the parts that we need. It is an ongoing battle. We had thought probably six or seven months ago, like everybody else, that it would be relatively short-term. But I think we’re into this for the next 12 to 18 months. I think we’ll come out of it as capacity comes online, but it’s going to take a little while before that happens.
I’ve talked to a few people about the chip shortage now. The best consensus I’ve gotten is that the problem isn’t at the state of the art. The problem is with older process nodes — five or 10-year-old technology. Is that where the problem is for you as well or are you thinking about moving beyond that?
It’s most acute with older tech. So we’ve got 16-bit chipsets that we’re still working with on legacy controllers that are a pain point. But that said, we’ve also got some really recent, modern stuff that is also a pain point. I was where your head is at three months ago. And then in the three months since, we’ve felt the pain everywhere.
When you say 18 months from now, is that you think there’s going to be more supply or you think the demand is going to tail off?
Supply is certainly coming online. [The] semiconductor industry is doing the right thing. They’re trying to bring capacity online to meet the demand. I would argue it’s just a classic bullwhip effect that’s happened in the marketplace. So I think that will happen. I think there’s certainly some behavior in the industry at the moment around what the demand side is. That’s made it hard for semiconductor manufacturers to understand what real demand is because there’s a panic situation in some respects in the marketplace at the moment.
That said, I think it’s clear there’s only one direction that semiconductor volume is going, and it’s going up. Everything is going to demand it moving forward and demand more of it. So I think once we work through the next 12 to 18 months and work through this sort of immediate and near-term issue, the semiconductor industry is going to have a better handle on things, but capacity has to go up in order to meet the demand. There’s no doubt about it. A lot of that demand is real.
Are you thinking, “Man, I have these 16-bit systems. We should rearchitect things to be more modular, to be more modern, and faster,” or are you saying, “Supply will catch up”?
No, very much the former. I would say two things. One, more prevalent in supply for sure. And then the second one is, easier to change when we need to change. There’s some tech debt that we’re continuing to battle against and pay off over time. And it’s times like these when it rises to the surface and you wish you’d made decisions a little bit differently 10 years ago or five years ago.
My father-in-law, my wife’s cousins, are all farmers up and down. A lot of John Deere hats in my family. I texted them all and asked what they wanted to know. All of them came back and said “right to repair” down the line. Every single one of them. That’s what they asked me to ask you about.
I set up this whole conversation to talk about these things as computers. We understand the problems of computers. It is notable to me that John Deere and Apple had the same effective position on right to repair, which is, we would prefer if you didn’t do it and you let us do it. But there’s a lot of pushback. There are right-to-repair bills in an ever-growing number of states. How do you see that playing out right now? People want to repair their tractors. It is getting harder and harder to do it because they’re computers and you control the parts.
It’s a complex topic, first and foremost. I think the first thing I would tell you is that we have and remain committed to enabling customers to repair the products that they buy. The reality is that 98 percent of the repairs that customers want to do on John Deere products today, they can do. There’s nothing that prohibits them from doing them. Their wrenches are the same size as our wrenches. That all works. If somebody wants to go repair a diesel engine in a tractor, they can tear it down and fix it. We make the service manuals available. We make the parts available, we make the how-to available for them to tear it down to the ground and build it back up again.
That is not really what I’ve heard. I hear that a sensor goes off, the tractor goes into what people call “limp mode.” They have to bring it into a service center. They need a John Deere-certified laptop to pull the codes and actually do that work.
The diagnostic trouble codes are pushed out onto the display. The customer can see what those diagnostic trouble codes are. They may not understand or be able to connect what that sensor issue is with a root cause. There may be an underlying root cause that’s not immediately obvious to the customer based upon the fault code, but the fault code information is there. There is expertise that exists within the John Deere dealer environment, because they’ve seen those issues over time that allows them to understand what the probable cause is for that particular issue. That said, anybody can go buy the sensor. Anybody can go replace it. That’s just a reality.
There is, though, this 2 percent-ish of the repairs that occur on equipment today [that] involve software. And to your point, they’re computer environments that are driving around on wheels. So there is a software component to them. Where we differ with the right-to-repair folks is that software, in many cases, it’s regulated. So let’s take the diesel engine example. We are required, because it’s a regulated emissions environment, to make sure that diesel engine performs at a certain emission output, nitrous oxide, particulate matter, etc., and so on. Modifying software changes that. It changes the output characteristics of the emissions of the engine and that’s a regulated device. So we’re pretty sensitive to changes that would impact that. And disproportionately, those are software changes. Like going in and changing governor gain scheduling, for example, on a diesel engine would have a negative consequence on the emissions that [an] engine produces.
The same argument would apply in brake-by-wire and steer-by-wire. Do you really want a tractor going down the road with software on it that has been modified for steering or modified for braking in some way that might have a consequence that nobody thought of? We know the rigorous nature of testing that we go through in order to push software out into a production landscape. We want to make sure that that product is as safe and reliable and performs to the intended expectations of the regulatory environment that we operate in.
But people are doing it anyway. That’s the real issue here. Again, these are computer problems. This is what I hear from Apple about repairing your own iPhone. Here’s the device with all your data on it that’s on the network. Do you really want to run unsupported software on it? The valence of the debate feels the same to me.
At the same time though, is it their tractor or is it your tractor? Shouldn’t I be allowed to run whatever software I want on my computer?
I think the difference with the Apple argument is that the iPhone isn’t driving down the road at 20 miles an hour with oncoming traffic coming at it. There’s a seriousness of the change that you could make to a product. These things are large. They cost a lot of money. It’s a 40,000-pound tractor going down the road at 20 miles an hour. Do you really want to expose untested, unplanned, unknown introductions of software into a product like that that’s out in the public landscape?
But they were doing it mechanically before. Making it computerized allows you to control that behavior in a way that you cannot on a purely mechanical tractor. I know there are a lot of farmers who did dumb stuff with their mechanical tractors and that was just part of the ecosystem.
Sure. I grew up on one of those. I think the difference there is that the system is so much more complicated today, in part because of software, that it’s not always evident immediately if I make a change here, what it’s going to produce over there. When it was all mechanical, I knew, if I changed the size of the tires or the steering linkage geometry, what was going to happen. I could physically see it and the system was self-contained because it was a mechanical-only system.
I think when we’re talking about a modern piece of equipment and the complexity of the system, it’s a ripple effect. You don’t know what a change that you make over here is going to impact over there any longer. It’s not intuitively obvious to somebody who would make a change in isolation to software, for example, over here. It is a tremendously complex problem. It’s one that we’ve got a tremendously large organization that’s responsible for understanding that complete system and making sure that when the product is produced, that it is reliable and it is safe and it does meet emissions and all of those things.
I look at some of the coverage and there are farmers who are downloading software of unknown provenance that can hack around some of the restrictions. Some of that software appears to be coming from groups in the Ukraine. They’re now using other software to get around the restrictions that, in some cases, could make it even worse, and lead to other unintended consequences, whereas providing the opportunities or making that more official might actually solve some of those problems in a more straightforward way.
I think we’ve taken steps to try to help. One of those is customer service. Service Advisor is the John Deere software that a dealership would use in order to diagnose and troubleshoot equipment. We’ve made available the customer version of Service Advisor as well in order to provide some of the ability for them to have insights — to your point about fault codes before — insights into what are those issues, and what can I learn about them as a customer? How might I go about fixing them? There have been efforts underway in order to try to bridge some of that gap to the extent possible.
We are, though, not in a position where we would ever condone or support a third-party software being put on products of ours, because we just don’t know what the consequences of that are going to be. It’s not something that we’ve tested. We don’t know what it might make the equipment do or not do. And we don’t know what the long-term impacts of that are.
I feel like a lot of people listening to the show own a car. I’ve got a pickup truck. I can go buy a device that will upload a new tune for my Ford pickup truck’s engine. Is that something you can do to a John Deere tractor?
There are third-party outfits that will do exactly that to a John Deere engine. Yep.
But can you do that yourself?
I suspect if you had the right technical knowledge, you could probably figure out a way to do it yourself. If a third-party company figured it out, there is a way for a consumer to do it too.
Where’s the line? Where do you think your control of the system ends and the consumer’s begins? I ask that because I think that might be the most important question in computing right now, just broadly across every kind of computer in our lives. At some point, the manufacturer is like, “I’m still right here with you and I’m putting a line in front of you.” Where’s your line?
We talked about the corner cases, the use cases I think that for us are the lines. They’re around the regulated environment from an emissions perspective. We’ve got a responsibility when we sell a piece of equipment to make sure that it’s meeting the regulatory environment that we sold it into. And then I think the other one is in and around safety, critical systems, things that they can impact others in the environment that, again, in a regulated fashion, we have a responsibility to produce a product that meets the requirements that the regulatory environment requires.
Not only that, but I think there’s a societal responsibility, frankly, that we make sure that the product is as safe as it can be for as long as it can be in operation. And those are where I think we spend a lot of time talking about what amounts to a very small part of the repair of a product. The statistics are real: 98 percent of the repairs that happen on a product can be done by a customer today. So we’re talking about a very small number of them, but they tend to be around those sort of sensitive use cases, regulatory and safety.
Right to Repair legislation is very bipartisan. You’re talking about big commercial operations in a lot of states. It’s America. It’s apple pie and corn farmers. They have a lot of political weight and they’re able to make a very bipartisan push, which is pretty rare in this country right now. Is that a signal you see as, “Oh man, if we don’t get this right, the government is coming for our products?”
I think the government’s certainly one voice in this, and it’s stemming from feedback from some customers. Obviously you’ve done your own bit of work across the farmers in your family. So it is a topic that is being discussed for sure. And we’re all in favor of that discussion, by the way. I think that what we want to make sure of is that it’s an objective discussion. There are ramifications across all dimensions of this. We want to make sure that those are well understood, because it’s such an important topic and has significant enough consequences, so we want to make sure we get it right. The unintended consequences of this are not small. They will impact the industry, some of them in a negative way. And so we just want to make sure that the discussion is objective.
The other signal I’d ask you about is that prices of pre-computer tractors are skyrocketing. Maybe you see that a different way, but I’m looking at some coverage that says old tractors, pre-1990 tractors, are selling for double what they were a year or two ago. There are incredible price hikes on these old tractors. And that the demand is there because people don’t want computers in their tractors. Is that a market signal to you, that you should change the way your products work? Or are you saying, “Well, eventually those tractors will die and you won’t have a choice except to buy one of the new products”?
I think the benefits that accrue from technology are significant enough for consumers. We see this happening with the consumer vote by dollar, by what they purchase. Consumers are continuing to purchase higher levels of technology as we go on. So while yes, the demand for older tractors has gone up, in part it’s because the demand for tractors has gone up completely. Our own technology solutions, we’ve seen upticks in take rates year over year over year over year. So if people were averse to technology, I don’t think you’d see that. At some point we have to recognize that the benefits that technology brings outweigh the downsides of the technology. I think that’s just this part of the technology adoption curve that we’re all on.
That’s the same conversation around smartphones. I get it with smartphones. Everyone has them in their pocket. They collect all this personal data. You may want a gatekeeper there because you don’t have a sophisticated user base.
Your customers are very self-interested, commercial customers.
Do you think you have a different kind of responsibility than, I don’t know, the Xbox Live team has to the Xbox Live community? In terms of data, in terms of control, in terms of relinquishing control of the product once it’s sold.
It certainly is a different market. It’s a different customer base. It’s a different clientele. To your point, they are dependent upon the product for their livelihood. So we do everything we can to make sure that product is reliable. It produces when it needs to produce in order to make sure that their businesses are productive and sustainable. I do think the biggest difference from the consumer market that you referenced to our market is the technology life cycle that we’re on.
You brought up tractors that are 20 years old that don’t have a ton of computers on-board versus what we have today. But what we have today is significantly more efficient than what we had 20 years ago. The tractors that you referenced are still in the market. People are still using them. They’re still putting them to work, productive work. In fact, on my family farm, they’re still being used for productive work. And I think that’s what’s different between the consumer market and the ag market. We don’t have a disposable product. You don’t just pick it up and throw it away. We have to be able to plan for that technology use across decades as opposed to maybe single-digit years.
In terms of the benefits of technology and selling that through, one of the other questions I got from the folks in my family was about the next thing that technology can enable. It seems like the equipment can’t physically get much bigger. The next thing to tackle is speed — making things faster for increased productivity.
Is that how you think about selling the benefits of technology — now the combine is as big as it can be, and it’s efficient at this massive scale. Is the next step to make it more efficient in terms of speed?
You’ve seen the industry trend that way. You look at planting as a great example. Ten years ago, we planted at three miles an hour. Today, we plant at 10 miles an hour. And what enabled that was technology. It was electric motors on row units that can react really, really quickly, that are highly controllable and can place seed really, really accurately, right? I think that’s the trend. Wisconsin’s a great place to talk about it. Whether it’s a row crop farm, there’s a small window in the spring, a couple of weeks, where it’s optimal to get those crops in the ground. And so it’s an insurance policy to be able to go faster because the weather may not be great for both of those weeks that you’ve got that are optimal planning weeks. And so you may only have three days or four days in that 10-day window in order to plant all your crops.
And speed is one way to make sure that that happens. Size and the width of the machine is the other. I would agree that we’ve gotten to the point where there’s very little opportunity left in going bigger, and so going faster and, I would argue, going more intelligently, is the way that you improve productivity in the future.
So we’ve talked about a huge set of responsibilities, everything from the physical mechanical design of the machinery to building cloud services, to geopolitics. What is your decision-making process? What’s your framework for how you make decisions?
I think at the root of it, we try to drive everything back to a customer and what we can do to make that customer more productive and more sustainable. And that helps us triage. Of all the great ideas that are out there, all the things that we could work on, what are the things that can move the needle for a customer in their operation as much as possible? And I think that grounding in the customer and the customer’s business is important because, fundamentally, our business is dependent upon the farmer’s business. If the farmer does well, we do well. If the farmer doesn’t do well, we don’t do well. We’re intertwined. There’s a connection there that you can’t and shouldn’t separate.
So driving our decision-making process towards having an intimate knowledge of the customer’s business and what we can do to make their business better frames everything we do.
What’s next for John Deere? What is the short term future for precision farming? Give me a five-year prediction.
I’m super excited about what we’re calling “sense and act.” “See and spray” is the first down payment on that. It’s the ability to create, in software and through electronic and mechanical devices, the human sense of sight, and then act on it. So we’re separating, in this case, weeds from useful crop, and we’re only spraying the weeds. That reduces herbicide use within a field. It reduces the cost for the farmer, input cost into their operation. It’s a win-win-win. And it is step one in the sense-and-act trajectory or sense-and-act runway that we’re on.
There’s a lot more opportunity for us in agriculture to do more sensing and acting, and doing that in an optimal way so that we’re not painting the same picture across a complete field, but doing it more prescriptively and acting more prescriptively in areas of a field that demand different things. I think that sense-and-act type of vision is the roadmap that we’re on. There’s a ton of opportunity in there. It is technology-intensive because you’re talking sensors, you’re talking computers, and you’re talking acting with precision. All of those things require fundamental shifts in technology from where we’re at today.
It’s time to ditch Chrome
It’s time to ditch Chrome
Despite a poor reputation for privacy, Google’s Chrome browser continues to dominate. The web browser has around 65 per cent market share and two billion people are regularly using it. Its closest competitor, Apple’s Safari, lags far behind with under 20 per cent market share. That’s a lot of power, even before you consider Chrome’s data collection practices.
Is Google too big and powerful, and do you need to ditch Chrome for good? Privacy experts say yes. Chrome is tightly integrated with Google’s data gathering infrastructure, including services such as Google search and Gmail – and its market dominance gives it the power to help set new standards across the web. Chrome is one of Google’s most powerful data-gathering tools.
Google is currently under fire from privacy campaigners including rival browser makers and regulators for changes in Chrome that will spell the end of third-party cookies, the trackers that follow you as you browse. Although there are no solid plans for Europe yet, Google is planning to replace cookies with its own ‘privacy preserving’ tracking tech called FLoC, which critics say will give the firm even more power at the expense of its competitors due to the sheer scale of Chrome’s user base.
Chrome’s hefty data collection practices are another reason to ditch the browser. According to Apple’s iOS privacy labels, Google’s Chrome app can collect data including your location, search and browsing history, user identifiers and product interaction data for “personalisation” purposes. Google says this gives you the ability to enable features such as the option to save your bookmarks and passwords to your Google Account. But unlike rivals Safari, Microsoft’s Edge and Firefox, Chrome links this data to devices and individuals.
Although Chrome legitimately needs to handle browsing data, it can siphon off a large amount of information about your activities and transmit it to Google, says Rowenna Fielding, founder and director of privacy consultancy Miss IG Geek. “If you’re using Chrome to browse the internet, even in private mode, Google is watching everything you do online, all the time. This allows Google to build up a detailed and sophisticated picture about your personality, interests, vulnerabilities and triggers.”
When you sync your Google accounts to Chrome, the data slurping doesn’t stop there. Information from other Google-owned products including its email service Gmail and Google search can be combined to form a scarily accurate picture. Chrome data can be added to your geolocation history from Google Maps, the metadata from your Gmail usage, your social graph – who you interact with, both on and offline – the apps you use on your Android phone, and the products you buy with Google Pay. “That creates a very clear picture of who you are and how you live your life,” Fielding says.
As well as gathering information about your online and offline purchases, data from Google Pay can be used “in the same way as data from other Google services,” says Fielding. “This is not just what you buy, but also your location, device contacts and information, and the links those details provide so you can be identified and profiled across multiple datasets.”
Google’s power goes even further than its own browser market share. Competitor browsers such as Microsoft’s Edge are based on the same engine, Chromium. “So under the hood they are still a form of Chrome”, says Sean Wright, an independent security researcher.
Google’s massive market share has allowed the internet giant to develop web standards such as AMP in Google mobile search, which publishers must use in order to appear at the top of search results. And more recently, Chrome’s FLoC effectively gives Google control over the ad tracking tech that will replace third-party cookies – although this is being developed in the open and with feedback from other developers.
Google’s power allows it to set the direction of the industry, says Wright. “Some of those changes are good, including the move to make HTTPS encryption a default, but others are more self-serving, such as the FLoC proposal.”
Google says its Ads products do not access synced Chrome browsing history, other than for preventing spam and fraud. The firm outlines that the iOS privacy labels represent the maximum categories of data that can be gathered, and what is actually collected depends on the features you use in the app, and how you configure your settings. It also claims its open-source FLoC API is privacy-focused and will not give Google Ads products special privileges or access.
Google says privacy and security “have always been core benefits of the Chrome browser”. A Google spokesperson highlighted the Safe Browsing features that protect against threats such as phishing and malware, as well as additional controls to help you manage your information in Chrome. In recent years the company has introduced more ways you can control your data. “Chrome offers helpful options to keep your data in sync across devices, and you control what activity gets saved to your Google Account if you choose to sign in,” the spokesperson says.
But that doesn’t change the level of data collection possible, or the fact that Google has so much sway, simply through its market dominance and joined up ad-driven ecosystem. “When you are a company that has the majority share of browsers and internet search, you suddenly have a huge amount of power,” says Matthew Gribben, a former GCHQ cybersecurity consultant. “When every web developer and SEO expert in the world needs to pander to these whims, the focus becomes on making sites work well for Google at the expense of everything else.”
And as long as people use Chrome and other services – many of which are, admittedly, more user friendly than those of rivals – then Google’s power shows no signs of diminishing. Chrome provides Google with “enormous amounts of behavioural and demographic data, control over people’s browsing experience, a platform for shaping the web to Google’s own advantage, and brand ‘capture’”, Fielding says. “When people’s favourite tools, games and sites only work with Chrome, they are reluctant to switch to an alternative.”
In theory, competition and data protection laws should provide the tools to keep Google from getting out of control, says Fielding. But in practice, “that doesn’t seem to be working for various reasons – including disparities of wealth and power between Google and national regulators”. Fielding adds that Google is also useful to many governments and economies and it is tricky to enforce national laws against a global corporation.
There are steps you can take to lock down your account, such as preventing your browsing data being collected by not syncing Chrome, and turning off third-party cookie tracking. But note that the more features you use in Chrome, the more data Google needs to ensure they can function properly. And as Google’s power and dominance continues to surge, the other option is to ditch Chrome altogether.
If you do decide to ditch Chrome, there are plenty of other feature-rich privacy browser options to consider, including Firefox, Brave and DuckDuckGo, which don’t involve giving Google any of your data.