Imitation game goes on as Google chief joins Yahoo!
WE’RE AT a moment in Silicon Valley’s long card game where relatively successful, but perhaps a little tired, players are attempting to reshuffle their hands in order to come up with new combinations to play. There’s lots of peering over one another’s shoulders to see if they can’t sneakily pluck a few ideas from another person’s deck. And a few are deciding to split from their playing partners and join the other side.
Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s new chief executive, and formerly head of Google’s most important projects, is just one example. What does a Yahoo with a Google mind look like? Will it catch the drive of Google, or is it too late for either Google-style strategy or Yahoo’s corporate momentum to save the company?
For the past few months, it’s been Apple and Facebook from which other companies have sought to “lift” ideas. Apple’s strange, self-contained world, best covered by local reporter Adam Lashinsky in his new book, Inside Apple, was forged from the counter-intuitive strategies gleaned from idiosyncratic thoughts of of Steve Jobs.
Now that unique corporate structure been ransacked for possible new business manoeuvres by those outside it. In Lashinsky’s book, unnamed former Apple executives admitted how unsure they were that the Apple way could even work outside that company.
Their skills, they repeatedly told him, didn’t seem to map on to the rest of the world. Other companies needed metrics and stability and industry relationships. Apple worked on company-gambling hunches, constant adjustment, and an almost hermetic sealing away from outside influence.
Facebook’s strangely direct leap from small start-up to billion-user giant attracts the same attempts to reverse-engineer repeat successes elsewhere. Most notably, in this game of swapped partners, Google has tried to imitate not just Facebook’s goals but its internal decision-making. When Google+, the search engine company’s social network, launched, it enforced an incredibly “unGoogly” feature, a requirement that users use their real names instead of allowing them to pick pseudonyms. It was a direct crib from one of Facebook’s least internet-like policies.
The policy was divisive within Google, but it was clear why it was chosen. It was part of the Facebook magic, and therefore needed to be imitated to beat them.
With Yahoo’s CEO hire, the imitation game continues. No-one is expecting that Mayer will do anything more than Googlify Yahoo, not least because Mayer is seen as one of the key figures who created the Google strategy and outlook. Asking Mayer to do something different from what Google has been, it is said, is like expecting Jobs not to be like Apple in another company.
But that may be underestimating Mayer – and overestimating the benefits of transplanting internet corporate DNA.
When Jobs wasn’t at Apple, he was definitively unsuccessful. All the strategies that were such a hit when he returned, failed at his second start-up, NeXT. Google’s purloining of the Facebook modus operandi doesn’t seem to be working either. The parts of Google+ that people like are the bits that don’t remind them of Facebook, but of the old Google: clean, unobtrusive, and info-heavy.