The world was kind of a crappy place in 2017, especially online. Google, as a company, needs to do a better job dealing with that.
Google is doing so much that it can be a little difficult for any one thing to break through as the primary narrative for the company, something to move it beyond just search. Apple and Samsung make mostly hardware, but Google seems to be trying to do everything. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has decided what he’d like that primary to be — the expansion of AI and Machine Learning into every corner of the world — but damned reality keeps upending that narrative.
These realities sometimes undercut Google’s self-image as an AI powerhouse. The biggest example was the rash of fake news stories that appeared at the top of Google’s “Top Stories” carousel, which effectively gave those false stories a patina of Google approval. You’d like to think a company that prides itself on algorithms wouldn’t allow them to fail so badly and so dangerously. The company also failed to adequately protect children from both watching or being made to participate in some supremely sketchy YouTube videos.
Other times the realities were simply an indication that Google is not the charmed, utopian company that it often gets presented as. The lawsuit about pay discrimination for women and the drama surrounding the incendiary James Damore memo were important reminders that Google faces the same issues (and can make as many mistakes) as the rest of the world outside Silicon Valley.
Google has weathered these storms with perhaps more grace and good will than other companies would have managed, but they were storms nonetheless. But too often it has been caught flat-footed, reacting to a political world that has shifted under all of our feet. It’s fighting a €2.4 billion antitrust fine from the EU. It (along with the rest of tech) has been ineffectual in making a dent in the Trump administration’s stance on both immigration and net neutrality. At least the company has (rightly or wrongly) thus far avoided much direct blame for Russian meddling in last year’s election.
Step outside politics and just look at Google’s products, however, and the company looks quite a bit more effective. Its DeepMind AI went from definitive victories in Go to definitive victories in chess with just hours of self-traiting. The Google Assistant, while still playing second-fiddle to Amazon Alexa in mindshare, made its way to more devices while extending its lead in actually providing useful information. Its answer to instant articles, AMP, has supplanted Facebook as one of the dominant drivers of internet traffic to publishers. YouTube TV seems to be a quiet success, too.
Other Google products had a rougher go of it this year. Two of the products it released this fall had rocky launches — the Pixel 2 XL had a questionable screen and the Google Home Mini had a broken touch sensor. 2017 was the year that Android Wear went from side note to punchline in the wearable space, and Android apps on Chromebooks spent much of the year mired in a buggy beta. And the ongoing slapfight with Amazon over YouTube and retail has been an annoying distraction, to say the least.
It’s clearer than ever before that Google has infused nearly every part of our online lives: it controls history’s most-used computing platform (Android), makes the most popular browser, runs an absolutely gargantuan ad network, and of course, provides all those search results. But infusing the world also means that the world has infused Google, it’s not some separate, don’t-be-evil shangri-la anymore (and it never was, really).