In Annual Letter, Sundar Pichai Says Computing, And Google, Will Be Driven By Artificial Intelligence
Miguel Helft , FORBES STAFF
I write about tech and lead the Forbes tech team in San Francisco
Back in April 2004, when Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote their first, and now famous, Founders’ Letter (it opened with the bold-but-still-true: “Google GOOGL +0.41% is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.”) Sundar Pichai was a new employee who had joined the company that month as a mid-level manager. Twelve years, Pichai got tapped to pen the letter, which has become an annual thing, an update on the company’s progress and priorities from the founders.
Just don’t call it a Founders’ Letter any more.
The passing of the baton to Pichai is not surprising. It follows the massive corporate overhaul engineered by Page last summer. The company became Alphabet, and Pichai, after what must be one of the fastest climbs up any corporate ladder, was named CEO of its Google unit, responsible for most of its core businesses like Search, Android and YouTube.
The main goal of the reorg was to let Googlers worry about Google, and let others focus on “moonshots” (X), or smart cities (Sidewalk), or life sciences (Verily), or smart homes (Nest), or investing (GV and Capital), or broadband (Access). That may have worked internally, but since the reorg a lot of the media’s attention has remained focused on some of these other, more dazzling, bets. That Page and Brin ceded the corporate megaphone to Pichai is a clear statement that they think it’s time to put the focus back on Google. ”Since the majority of our big bets are in Google, I wanted to give him [Pichai] most of the bully-pulpit to reflect on Google’s accomplishments and share his vision,” Page wrote in a brief introduction to Pichai’s letter.
(The focus on Google makes sense for another reason: most other Alphabet units remain a work in progress, and a few, including Nest and Verily, have recently been in the news over internal turmoil and business challenges. So why not shift the spotlight to Google, which after all, brings in more than 99% of the revenue, more than 100% of the profits and funds for the other bets.)
So what is Pichai’s vision for Google? Much of it hews closely to a script he delivered just last week during the company’s quarterly earnings call. Pichai outlined six areas of focus, some that line up with technology and product areas, and others that represent priorities that cross product lines. They are:
- search and assistance
- machine learning and artificial intelligence
- content (YouTube, the Play store and initiatives that allow publishers to optimize for mobile) and advertising to fund it
- computing platforms like Android and virtual reality
- building technology for everyone (free web and mobile services, Chromebooks and inexpensive phones)
One thing struck me as noteworthy was a line tucked away more than two-thirds into the letter: “We will move from mobile first to an AI first world,” Pichai wrote. It was a reprise of something he said in the earnings call, and interestingly, it was not in the AI section of the letter. It was in the computing platforms section.
On a second read, it was clear that the ascendancy of AI — and its central role in just about everything Google does — permeated the letter. Pichai didn’t mention AI in the search and assistance section, but he didn’t have to. In February, he tapped one of the company’s top AI gurus, John Giannandrea, to run the search team. AI made appearances in the section on computing platforms, and the section on enterprise. And of course, the section on AI noted the technology’s central role in search and assistance (still Google’s core).
This isn’t new. Google has long been a leader in AI and has used it to develop many of its services. Back in 2010, I wrote about how the company used its massive data troves, prodigious computing power and AI algorithms to build Google Translate. But AI has gained importance across the industry in recent years, as evidenced by the emphasis put on it by the likes of Microsoft MSFT -1.71% — also a pioneer in the field through its research arm — andFacebook FB +1.03%, which is quickly investing in the technology to catch up. Pichai seems determined to keep Google at the forefront. That doesn’t mean Google will become an AI research experiment, though experiments and research will go on (see the AlphaGo system, which recently beat the world’s top Go master). But expect AI to be embedded in more and more of what Google does. Or as Pichai wrote: ”Over time, the computer itself — whatever its form factor — will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day.”
These are few other things in the letter that struck me as noteworthy:
- Platforms: The section opened, not surprisingly, with Android, which is arguably the most successful operating system of all time. But half the section was dedicated to virtual reality. Google’s only known VR product is Cardboard, which is, at the same time, the most low-techand most widely distributed piece of VR gear available today, with 5 million units in the hands of people. Expect Google to do a lot more in VR, which is now under the direction of VP Clay Bavor. Announcements could come as soon as Google I/O, the company’s conference for developers, next month.
- Enterprise: Google has made no secret that it’s getting serious about enterprise, and especially cloud computing services to compete with leaders Amazon and Microsoft. In November, Pichai appointed Diane Greene, a Google board member and the co-founder of VMware, to run an enterprise and cloud unit. In March, it held its first ever conference focused on the technology, and the event, called Next, was headlined by Pichai and executive chairman Eric Schmidt. Google really means to catch up with its rivals.
- Tech for everyone: Google has been criticized, notably by Apple CEO Tim Cook, for relying on advertising to support its products. Cook said that requires customers to give up their personal information and privacy. Google has never tried to hide from consumers the bargain it makes with them, that advertising subsidizes its products, and Pichai defended the practice in the letter. “We work on advertising because it’s what allows us to make our services free; Google Search works the same for anyone with an Internet connection, whether it is a in a modern high-rise or a rural school house.” While Apple is never mentioned by name, the whole section reads as something of a rebuke to Apple. Here’s how I read it: It’s fine for you to sell $600 iPhones to those who can afford it; we strive to make inexpensive gadgets, $50 Android phones and $100 Chromebooks, for everyone, and services that are free.
Here’s Pichai closing paragraph:
For us, technology is not about the devices or the products we build. Those aren’t the end-goals. Technology is a democratizing force, empowering people through information. Google is an information company. It was when it was founded, and it is today. And it’s what people do with that information that amazes and inspires me every day.
You can read Pichai’s full letter here.
Miguel Helft is the San Francisco Bureau Chief for Forbes. Follow him on Twitter at @mhelft.