When Larry Page became CEO of Google in 2011, Steve Jobs offered him some advice: “Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest…. They’re causing you to turn out products that are adequate but not great.” Page took this criticism to heart. Over the last two years, Google has shuttered countless side projects, focusing its efforts on consumer devices and cloud services.
It must be said, though, that adequacy is the defining characteristic of a search engine. Look up a topic on Google search, and you won’t find the most factual news stories, or the most insightful blog posts. What you’ll get are the popular ones, and the catch-alls — the links that, like YouTube sensations, have risen to the top because they weigh the least. Even at their best, search engines represent a regression to the mean — sometimes called a reversion to mediocrity – and they show us some of the limitations of big data.
In other words, Apple may have had a talent for picking winners, but Google didn’t. The side projects that Jobs criticized were invaluable because they allowed the search giant to tinker its way to innovation. Through a policy called “20% time,” it paid employees to work on side projects of their own choosing, hoping that a valuable idea would turn up.