Can Google engineer chaos?

The picture of Google that emerges from a recent Fortune magazine article depends a lot on your point of view. Some will focus on the fact that the Googleplex is all free cafeterias and young people whizzing around on scooters. Others will focus on how the gigantic cash-spewing machine that fuels the company gives its managers unprecedented freedom to think in different ways — to try and fail, and in some cases not even to worry about making money at all.

Is that a good thing? It might be. On the other hand, Google might be fiddling while Rome burns. It’s interesting to contrast Google with Microsoft. Even when the software giant was young, the entire company was focused on extending the dominance of Windows and Office. Do you think Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer gave employees 20 per cent of their time to work on new things? Dream on. Even with the internal think-tank work that Microsoft has done, it has still wound up getting side-swiped by the Internet, the iPod and plenty of other things.

Does Google’s flexibility mean it is any less likely to get a nasty surprise? That’s hard to say. For my part, all the stuff about “engineering chaos” and giving employees the right to fail and so on is great — and don’t get me wrong, it is definitely great, and I think more companies (including mine) should encourage it — but the piece of the puzzle that rang the truest for me, as it obviously did for Richard at Read/Write Web, came at the end, when Eric Schmidt was drawing on the whiteboard talking about the Internet:

The gist of the illustration is that there’s practically no money left to be made in computers, not in hardware or software. The money, instead, is all in Web applications, a trend Schmidt had been predicting since his days as chief technology officer at Sun a decade ago. Users won’t always be traveling to the Web on the PC.

Can Google manage to take a commanding presence in that future world? Google Calendar and Google Spreadsheets and Google Notebook are interesting, but as far as I’m concerned they are baby steps along that road. Maybe a little less chaos and a little more focus wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

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