Now that we’ve had a day to consider the implications, it seems striking that there are only two real lines of thinking emerging.
The first is: remind us who Sundar Pichai is, and also can he possibly resolve the many challenges in front of him?
The second is: why does Alphabet exist again?
Let’s take them in order.
Sundar Pichai is the 47-year-old CEO of Google, and as of yesterday, the CEO of its parent company, Alphabet. He comes from humble beginnings, as Mat Honan captured beautifully in this profile from a few years back
. Pichai joined the company in 2004 and ran Chrome and Android before being named CEO in 2015. He attended the 2013 Google holiday party while still a Chrome executive and was very nice to me personally, which is consistent with virtually all other reports of his behavior.
His most important job lies within Google still, and it’s not just cleaning up the effects of Google’s culture on its products. Instead, it’s stabilizing the culture itself. After that, it’s navigating the new world of regulation, antitrust, the techlash, and well-justified privacy concerns from its users (aka everybody who goes online).
Then there are all the Congressional hearings to come
, with Pichai likely to be cast in the role of punching bag for lawmakers concerned about data privacy, competition, algorithmic bias, and other thorny issues.
And what about Alphabet, the holding company Google established in 2015 when it made Pichai CEO? Well … no one is quite sure why we need it any more. The original idea, as Shira Ovide writes here
, was to “give operational independence and a separate budget to nascent projects inside the company such as driverless cars, health-care initiatives and novel approaches to internet services.”
But that may not make sense much longer, Ovide continues:
Shielding Google from those “other bets” such as driverless cars no longer seems so urgent. Alphabet and other tech titans — particularly those effectively controlled by their founders — have a relatively long leash from investors to invest in both the projects that generate earnings now and on whatever comes next. Amazon, for example, spent $14 billion to buy a niche grocery store chain, and it’s investing in far-flung businesses such as health care and entertainment.
Amazon has always received a longer leash to tinker than most other companies, but I think Google’s cash firepower also lets it experiment without creating an artificial structure to shield Google from its less mature corporate cousins. There may be a reason that Alphabet never became a blueprint for other technology companies that wanted to keep up with the times.
Pichai will still get detailed YouTube information, and Page still won’t, but now Pichai is the CEO of the whole public company. Presumably — who knows! — he will devote more of his time to YouTube, which is both a huge cash generator and a political lightning rod, than he does to, like, Moonshot Number 13 or whatever. Perhaps this will change Alphabet’s disclosure; perhaps they’ll find a way to keep things vague. But surely it will change Alphabet’s business. Having the CEO involved in the money-generating business is different from having a CEO who isn’t. It feels weird to type that. Usually it’s just a given. Most public-company CEOs spend a lot of their time working on the parts of the business that make the money! Alphabet was an unusual experiment in not doing that, but now it seems to be over.
If the result of yesterday’s changing of the guard is that the other bets wither away, and Pichai focuses Google on its core suite products, that would seem to me like a very big change indeed.