Google and Facebook, young and successful companies that they are, risk being left behind as
technology shifts from PCs and Web browsers to mobile devices.
This month, when Google showcased a new design for Google Plus, the company’s social network,
it was as if mobile phones and tablets were still a glimmer in some future inventor’s eye.
The made-over Web site was beautifully designed, but the smartphone app and mobile site were
completely ignored. During the site’s redesign, a Google spokeswoman told me,
“Today, the mobile experience will not change.”
Facebook is also struggling with mobile, as evidenced by its recent $1 billion acquisition of Instagram.
Its mobile app, which is sometimes painfully slow, was updated only after the Web site was redesigned
I have a theory on why they both have been slow to capitalize on the shift to mobile.
It’s that working at these companies is like going to work on an all-inclusive cruise ship.
The analogy is apt in terms of the luxury — and the isolation.
An employee’s day often begins with a comfy shuttle bus whisking him or her to work in Silicon Valley.
The buses have Wi-Fi, so laptops are put to work before anyone arrives on the sprawling campuses.
Once there, dozens of free breakfast options await. Free buffet lunches break the monotony of the day.
There is free dinner, too. There are free snacks for those peckish between meals.
(The stuff that’s bad for you is on the hard-to-reach lower shelves.)
All of this is wonderful for the employees — and of course well deserved — but these perks could
be stultifying. At some of these Silicon Valley businesses, there is no reason to leave the office.
There are on-campus gyms. Day care. Massages. Dry cleaning. Car rentals.
(At the Google offices, some of the toilets even have heated seats.)
Sadly, this isn’t how the rest of the world works.
Most people actually have to leave their offices to get coffee.
While wandering out into the real world, we unfortunates tend to do a lot with our mobile phones.
We look for new restaurants, check in with location-based apps, share short pithy updates
about things we’ve seen in this outside world, and take pictures of food and sunsets.
I’m betting that the Googlers and Facebookers don’t see as much outside,
since all these perks are meant to keep people working as long as possible.
Anyone who has ever visited these offices will notice another stark difference.
At Facebook, for instance, some engineers sunbathe in front of two or even three 24- or 30-inch monitors.
Back in the real world, people instead sit squinting at a single, drastically smaller screen.
(My laptop, for example, is 13 inches.)
Last year, as Larry Page was retaking the helm at Google as chief executive,
he told Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times, “One of the primary goals I have is to get
Google to be a big company that has the nimbleness and soul and passion and speed of a start-up.”
Nimbleness is fine, but most start-ups I visit don’t have heated toilet seats and on-site dry cleaning.
If you look at the hottest start-ups and social companies today, they don’t even have real Web sites.
Path, Draw Something and Instagram are all primarily mobile experiences. Other social apps like Viddy
and Pair, which are quickly gaining in popularity, are also strictly mobile.
But this is the rhythm of Silicon Valley. It is, indeed, its life force. The bold start-up grows,
gets comfortable and misses the next big thing, which the newest hungry start-up spots while working
among the rest of us.