Google gave us a peek into its future and vision today as it announced, and showcased new, Google-designed cars that are built entirely for driving on their own, without humans. The future indicates, to me not that Google is building its own cars as one would expect to be competition with companies such as Ford, Chevy, Toyota, and others, but that Google is sticking to its core strength and vision – software that makes the world more openly available to everyone. The future, my friends, for the automobile industry isn’t cars – it’s in software that gets you from one place to another – it’s all about Google Maps, and competitors to it.
As I visited Silicon Valley recently with my wife as I attended Facebook’s F8 developers conference, I had the opportunity to briefly stop by Google Headquarters in Mountainview. The one building that greets you, and says goodbye to you as you leave likely isn’t noticed by everyone. It has a big, teardrop-shaped marker in the front, and a couple Google maps and other types of cars in front. It stands practically across from the Google Android building with all the dessert statues. That building is the home to Google Maps, and I’m now thinking it is not a coincidence that it is one of the first and last buildings you see on Google campus.
Google’s Entrance Into the Collaborative Economy
My very smart friend, Jeremiah Owyang, as I’ve shared numerous times on this blog, is becoming well known for coining the phrase, “collaborative economy”, a future (and now present) where people no longer just share virtually with each other, but in real life through things like cars, homes and places to stay, and even real goods. In Chicago recently I got on my phone, connected to the Uber app, and it showed me a host of normal operators using their own cars to give people rides from the airport to their destination. As I toured the city, a company let me “borrow” a bicycle from one of many “Divvy bikes” and get around the city where I was able to tour one of the tallest buildings in the world and see Monet paintings at the Chicago museum of fine art. Jeremiah is most definitely onto something.
Companies like Ford and Walmart and others are taking notice to this new trend, many starting to partner with the likes of Uber and AirBNB (a service that lets people rent out rooms in their homes), and others. Some even creating their own similar services to empower and encourage people to use their (the company’s) products which those people own. The problem, I fear, is that in the end this is not the essence of where the collaborative economy is taking us. Google gets this, and I think we’re seeing a hint of it with today’s announcement.
Social Design in the Collaborative Economy
You see, the future doesn’t matter about the product itself. It’s about what the product can do for you. I’ve preached often about the concept of “social design” inside your product and even covered it in Facebook Application Development For Dummies. The idea is that you take the functionality of social networks and bring a person’s close friends and family from those social networks into the design of your app or product (which is often entirely virtual but not always). The next iteration of “social design” is to build software that truly, and ubiquitously integrates the collaborative economy within the product itself. In a perfect, socially-designed product you can’t distinguish between the “social”, and the product itself. It’s all one. Google is doing this with their self-driving cars.
In Google’s world, no one will ever have to own a car. In fact, they won’t even care if anyone else owns a car they can borrow. Google’s key asset is information, not “things”. Where the cars come from won’t matter. In the future you’ll just say, “Ok Google, give me a ride from Chicago Midway to the Sheraton” on your mobile phone or Google Glass or desktop, and a Google Car will come, pick you up, take you to your destination as you get work done along the way, maybe even ask you if you’d like to stop for a bite to eat along the way (through a contextual, location-targeted ad by McDonalds, of course), and you’ll never even have to pay for the ride. It’s the collaborative economy at its finest, and the automobile industry may not even know what hit them when it does. In the end, information is always more valuable than tangible things.
The competition in the future for the automobile industry, I’m afraid, isn’t the fact that people are borrowing cars from each other and taking public transportation more. Granted, that’s part of it, but not the end result. The future competitor for the automobile industry is the same thing that took out many of the hardware companies of the 80s – it will be software, and the information it indexes. The key players will be software giants like Google, Microsoft (maybe?), Yahoo, and Facebook.
As the information industry makes its way into the collaborative economy, Ford, Chevy, Toyota, you name the automobile company – they will all need to develop competitors to Google Maps and others in the future if they are to survive, or at least remain as large as they are now. The big question is, is it too late? In the end, software still rules the world, and hardware just works for it.