SAN FRANCISCO — It is certainly an alpha bet.
Larry Page is stepping away from the Internet’s biggest moneymaker to focus on moonshots, which is what Google calls speculative scientific bets that require a lot of capital and faith and frequently stray pretty far from the company’s search-engine roots.
The move, which places Google into a larger parent company called Alphabet Inc., surprised investors. But it’s in keeping with Page’s contemporaries, from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who have all built moonshot factories of their own to keep an innovative edge and avoid the fate of many big tech companies: heft, maturity and eventual irrelevance.
Page said Monday that Google is reorganizing so it can continue to build its Internet businesses while he and fellow founder Sergey Brin invest some of the cash they throw off in a panoply of newer, riskier businesses that for years have captured the public’s imagination but spooked investors.
With the new corporate structure, Page and Brin will have the freedom to tinker in their own version of a modern-day Bell Labs or Xerox PARC research lab, overseeing a portfolio of futuristic experiments, while Sundar Pichai, who had been senior vice president in charge of products, oversees Google.
But questions abound whether Google’s founders can strike silicon gold twice and come up with the next big technological breakthrough.
The pair have a mixed track record. Once baffling investments in YouTube and Android have become major engines of growth for the Internet giant. Yet, while many of their more recent bets on new technologies show promise — say driverless cars or the high-speed Internet project Fiber — none are proven and already one is a high-profile flop, the much hyped Internet-connected eyewear Google Glass.
“Predicting the next Google is like trying to predict the next big magnitude earthquake in San Francisco. You know statistically there is one in our future, but good luck trying to predict it,” said Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo. “We have no idea if it’s in that group of companies. But taking a portfolio approach is a great way to place bets.”
Page and Brin are not the first billionaire entrepreneurs to pursue lofty ambitions with little connection to the businesses that made them famous and a fortune.
Amazon founder Bezos is facing off against Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, in the race over spaceflight. And Musk is financing another outlandish dream: Hyperloop, a new form of high-speed transit.
None among this generation of Internet leaders wants to be zapped into irrelevance by swiftly emerging new technologies, so they continue to stretch the bounds of their companies and their own bandwidth.
Mark Zuckerberg, for example, is trying to foster innovation inside Facebook with the creation of Facebook Creative Labs. And he has made hefty purchases to stay abreast of new trends, last year paying $22 billion for mobile messaging service WhatsApp and $2 billion for virtual-reality device maker Oculus Rift.
“We’ve long believed that over time companies tend to get comfortable doing the same thing, just making incremental changes,” Page wrote in a blog post announcing Alphabet. “But in the technology industry, where revolutionary ideas drive the next big growth areas, you need to be a bit uncomfortable to stay relevant.”
Even before Google listed its shares on the stock market, Page and Brin warned investors that theirs would never be a “conventional company.” The founders said they planned to make “smaller bets that might seem very speculative or even strange when compared to our current businesses.”
Among today’s bets: smart-home gadget-maker Nest, which it bought last year for $3.2 billion, and Calico, a secretive startup that is researching how to prolong life.
Mizuho Securities analyst Patrick Phalon says the new Alphabet corporate structure should “help re-establish the once-entrepreneurial culture that Google had” and “could lead to a much nimbler and aggressive Google that can take on additional risks to compete with upstarts and existing Internet platform companies.”
Google has been under pressure to look to the future and to the next big moneymaker. The Internet giant relies on its main advertising business which makes nearly 90% of the company’s total revenue. That business is still growing, but it’s growing more slowly — and it’s facing rising competition from Facebook and others.
Google shares closed up 4% to $660.78 on Tuesday as Wall Street digested the Alphabet news.
Still, some wonder whether investments made so far afield from Internet advertising will pay off for Google and its shareholders.
“I think the single biggest question about Google right now is what the business models look like for all its new businesses,” said Jan Dawson, chief analyst with Jackdaw Research. “The business model doesn’t likely revolve around advertising, but it’s not clear what business models Google might use to monetize things like Calico in particular. And then, with self driving cars for example, it’s not clear who the end customer will be, given that many of the major car manufacturers are doing their own thing in this space.”
Dawson says he suspects senior management “doesn’t care enough about all this.”
“What Google really needs to do at this point is provide clarity about the way it will make decisions about these businesses and any future acquisitions or organic initiatives into new areas,” Dawson said. “As of right now, investors really have no idea how Google is making those decisions, and if I were an investor, I would be worried about that.”
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