BBC News

Nest acquisition: Where next for 'new' Google?

By Dave Lee
Technology reporter, BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionIn Pixar's Wall-E, mega-corporation Buy n Large is part of all human life and leisure

In the adorable 2008 Pixar film Wall-E, much of the plot centres on the corporate behemoth that is Buy n Large.

BnL, a "mega-corporation", runs everything. Everything.

The company is the "world leader" in - to pick just a few - aerospace, agriculture, the media, food, science, infrastructure and transport.

But it didn't start out that way. At first, BnL just sold yogurt.

And in 1998, Google just did search.

These days, it's the biggest player in internet advertising. It's a company that sends balloons into near-space, and kits out entire cities with underground cables. It's a company that runs most of the world's smartphones and tablets (logging customers' locations as it goes), and is taking on the wearable tech sector with its smart goggles, Google Glass.

Monday's announcement that Google was to acquire smart-thermostat-maker Nest for $3.2bn (£2bn) came hot on the heels of a big shopping spree in robotics, with the notable acquisition of Boston Dynamics.

It meant Google, whose motto is famously "don't be evil", now counts a company set up to create military equipment as part of its portfolio.

Oh, there are those self-driving cars, too.


So what exactly is Google, now?

"I think it's been clear for a long time that Google is not a web search company," says Benedict Evans, a technology and telecommunications analyst.

"Google is a vast machine-learning project that has been running for over a decade. The objective of Google is to get more data into that system."

How? Well, it's hard to predict the future, but there are some clues out there as to where Google sees its business going next.

image copyrightBlueBottleCoffeeCo
image captionNot just tech - Google's investment portfolio is certainly diverse

Nest, for instance, was one of many companies that Google has backed via its Google Ventures project, an initiative launched in 2009 with the intent of providing "seed, venture, and growth-stage funding to the best companies".

A look at some of the other companies backed by Google Ventures demonstrates the full spectrum of where Google thinks the future lies.

At first glance, it looks just like your typical investment fund. There's Kabam, a "hardcore social gaming" start-up; Fitstar, a firm looking to create "innovative fitness apps", and Nextdoor, a local social networking platform.

Take a deeper look at some of Google's interests and you see some truly out-of-the-box thinking.

A Californian "organic coffee roastery", Buttercoin, a marketplace for virtual currency Bitcoin, and Wittlebee, a child's clothing specialist.

Google is, to put it lightly, hedging its bets. Mr Evans agrees.

"Google missed social," he says, "and so is clearly not going to miss drones, and is not going to miss robotics, and is not going to miss home automation as major trends of technology."

In the health sector, more intrigue, with backings of companies that deal in cancer research, early autism diagnosis and DNA analysis.

Most strikingly: 23AndMe, a biotechnology firm that offers rapid genetic testing, allowing customers to take a swab of their own DNA and have it checked, quickly, for genetic-based diseases.

But if you think all of these investments - some financially huge, others less so - are a nod to a lack of focus from Google, you may be wrong.

"All of these things are essentially the end points for cloud information services," adds Mr Evans.

"[Devices like Nest's thermostat] are not discreet little boxes on the wall, the whole point of them is that all of them become software, and all of them become part of the internet.

"Google is about understanding the internet."

Sense of unease

In the fictional world of Wall-E, Buy n Large's expansion from yogurt seller to global superpower is credited in large amounts to the apparent apathy of the human race, which quite literally sleepwalks its way into having every facet of life controlled by the mega-corporation.

In real life, the public has not been quite so willing. News of Google's Nest acquisition prompted the usual smattering of gags from people on social media, as well as half-joking quips from industry experts.

"I kind of think Google read Big Brother and took it as a career goal," remarked one, Rob Enderle, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Likewise, various authorities around the world have come hard at Google, keen to show they are not letting major disruptions in how our personal data is collected and kept happen without proper oversight.

image copyrightAFP
image captionData gathered by Street View cars in more than 30 countries included passwords, emails and other data

It was reported at the weekend that members of Google's "X" team, a group working on top secret research projects, were having meetings with officials from the US Food and Drug Administration to discuss their plans. Mindful, you'd assume, that other ventures - such as 23andMe - had been put on hold by regulators worried about the effects of their plans.

In the public eye, a hurdle to what Google sees as cutting-edge innovation will be a growing sense of unease at the company's motives.

High profile privacy foul-ups - such as the discovery that Google Street View cars were unlawfully collecting data from personal wi-fi networks as they drove the streets - have done little to convince Google's critics, and indeed users, that everything is watertight.

"Part of Google's problem is they tend to think 'we know we're not going to do anything unpleasant with it, so you should just understand that'," remarks analyst Mr Evans.

"There is a gap between how Google sees itself and how its actions sometimes come across.

"From perfectly good motives - making products better - it tends to make people uncomfortable."

Google's ambitions, if realised, will place it at the very centre of everyday life - helping us find information, stay warm and get around.

But its biggest critic will remain its own users who, unlike the humans populating earth in Wall-E, may not be so open to a mega-corporation's embrace.

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC

More on this story

  • Google to buy 'machine learning' firm Nest Labs