In a 1990s science fiction film based on Carl Sagan's "Contact," one line captures the essence of Google -- a company that could have sprung from Sagan's imagination. Jodie Foster plays a scientist trying to reach extraterrestrials, but her project seems dead after a mysterious transport contraption is destroyed. A kooky billionaire surprises her with a backup he had constructed in secret.
"Why build one when you can have two at twice the price?" he explains.
Instead of trying to make one perfect thing, as Apple does, Google chooses to build at least two, often imperfect, versions of all the things.
It's tech strategy by throwing spaghetti at the wall. It makes for some terrible products that Google eventually abandons, or products that completely clash with others it makes. And, weirdly, it works.
At Google's annual developer event on Wednesday, the company showed off an instant-messaging app and a digital "assistant," similar to Apple's Siri. Google wants to put its digital helper to work in all sorts of digital and physical places, including a new voice-activated home speaker intended to help people turn on the lights in a child's room, plan a commute around a traffic jam and cue music in the kitchen.
Google didn't mention that it already has a Siri-like digital assistant called Google Now. The company didn't say that it will soon have four messaging-type apps (Messenger, Hangouts, Google Spaces and the newly introduced Allo.)
This overlap has plenty of company in Google's walls. The company famously also has two computer operating systems, Chrome and Android. The latter is mostly for phones and the former mostly for laptops, but not always. Google until recently had two services to store and organize digital photos, Photos and Picasa. Google has made several attempts at email software, including Gmail, the now dead Google Wave and the still alive Inbox. Google by rough count has made at least half a dozen attempts at devices or software to meld streaming Web video and traditional TV.
I still remember the anxiety I felt the first time I tried one of the first Google TV controllers in 2010. There. Were. So. Many. Buttons. And it was slow. It was, in a word, awful. Progress for Google didn't happen in a straight line, but it's possible to see the DNA of Google TV in Google's current $35 TV plug-in called Chromecast, which is among the best and cheapest ways to watch Web video on a TV set. In keeping with the "two is better than one" philosophy, Google also has software, called Android TV, that is baked into TV sets and has similar functions as Chromecast....MORE