Google’s main business is search engine advertising. None of its other products and services even come close, financially speaking.
Google knows it must protect that business at all costs. If people use any other search engine, on any device, for any reason, it means they’re not seeing a Google-delivered ad (or contributing data back to the Google ad sales mothership).
That’s why new classes of devices like the Amazon Echo home voice assistant and Facebook’s Oculus Rift virtual reality headset present such a threat to Google. They’re rapidly building new ways to be productive, consume media, and connect with people — without the need for Google’s search or services.
So when Google shows off the new Google Home (like Amazon Echo), Google Daydream View (like Samsung’s Oculus-powered Gear VR), and Google Pixel (like the Apple iPhone, design-wise), don’t think of the search giant as copying the competition, necessarily.
Google is simply safeguarding its biggest, most important line of business, no matter how the world changes around it.
The rise of the assistant
Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistants all rely on Microsoft Bing to search the web. For now, they represent a small part of the search market. But if they continue to grow unchecked, it means Google getting left behind.
It’s a threat large enough to inspire Google to ditch its long-time strategy of relying entirely on outside manufacturers like Samsung and HTC to push Android forward; instead it’s designing everything in-house. By taking control of both the software and the hardware on which it runs, Google can more effectively compete with Amazon, Apple, and Facebook’s Oculus, all of which do the same.
So Google has to build an awesome phone, powered by its Google Assistant bot, to provide a tantalising high-end alternative to Siri, which got an upgrade in iOS 10. It has to build a virtual reality headset, or else Facebook will run away with VR video advertising. And it has to build a smart home assistant to stave off Amazon Alexa.
For a historical example, consider why Google even bothered developing Android, which came out about a year after the first iPhone debuted in 2007, in the first place.
Google gives away the Android operating system to manufacturers like Samsung, LG, and HTC for free. But because Google is so baked into every layer of the operating system, it makes it difficult not to use the search engine or services. That makes Google billions of dollars in advertising.
From that perspective, Android was a success. It kept people using Google, even as search engine traffic moved from the PC to the smartphone. Now, Android is the most popular operating system in the world, and Google’s ad empire stands secure.
Now, Google is looking to repeat the trick. If Google can continue to provide the low-cost, high-intelligence alternative to Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, in every new area of importance, it can keep its crown no matter what the next big shifts in technology look like.
But nothing lasts forever, especially in tech. If people are unimpressed by Assistant, or wooed to Facebook’s and Sony’s higher-end virtual reality headsets, or are just plain turned off by the idea of having a Google-powered microphone in their home, Google could be left behind.
So even if Google wanted to stop copying the Facebooks and Amazons of the world, it’s too important to the company that the search engine stay omnipresent, everywhere. If that means taking your cues from everyone else, so be it.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through hispersonal investment company Bezos Expeditions.