How Google Killed GDrive and Spiked Its Skype Acquisition
This weekend I spent some time reading Steven Levy’s “In the Plex,” an account of the history of Google based on Levy’s deep embedding within the company (see Kara’s video interview with Levy from last week). The book as a whole is captivating, so I thought it might be worth highlighting a couple anecdotes about internal Google conflicts that previously never saw the light of day.
Levy relates that Sundar Pichai (the recently appointed SVP of Chrome who has been leading Google’s software projects for years) spiked Google’s GDrive storage service just prior to launch because he thought it was out of line with the cloud-based future. (Both Pichai and GDrive leader Bradley Horowitz spoke to Levy directly for his book.)
Google was about to launch a project it had been developing for more than a year, a free cloud-based storage service called GDrive. But Sundar had concluded that it was an artifact of the style of computing that Google was about to usher out the door. He went to Bradley Horowitz, the executive in charge of the project, and said, “I don’t think we need GDrive anymore.” Horowitz asked why not. “Files are so 1990,” said Pichai. “I don’t think we need files anymore.”
Horowitz was stunned. “Not need files anymore?”
“Think about it,” said Pichai. “You just want to get information into the cloud. When people use our Google Docs, there are no more files. You just start editing in the cloud, and there’s never a file.”
…Eventually they won people over by a logical argument–that it could be done, that it was the cloudlike thing to do, that it was the Google thing to do. That was the end of GDrive: shuttered as a relic of antiquated thinking even before Google released it. The engineers working on it went to the Chrome team.
In another longer section, Levy describes how Google product manager Wesley Chan, who had pushed for the company’s GrandCentral acquisition and was leading development on Google Voice, concocted and executed a plan to block Google from buying Skype, which it was seriously considering. (The timing and order of these events isn’t made explicit, which is a recurring issue through the book, but I’m a niggler for those details.)
Chan apparently bragged directly to Levy about his machinations:
With [Salar Kamangar and Sergey Brin] on board, Chan devised a plan to kill the Skype purchase. As he later described it, his scheme involved “laying grenades” at the executive meeting where the purchase was up for approval. Chan tricked the business development executive who was pushing the acquisition into thinking that he was in favor of the deal: he had even prepared a PowerPoint presentation with all the reasons Google should buy Skype. Chan says that halfway through the presentation, though, the trap sprang. Brin suddenly began asking questions that the deck didn’t address. “Who’s going to run this?” he demanded. “Not me,” said Kamangar. Craig Walker said he had two kids in school and wasn’t about to make regular runs to Eastern Europe. “What are the regulatory risks?” A lawyer said it might take months to get approval. Finally, Brin looked at Chan and asked why Google would want to take the risk to begin with. Chan dropped his defense entirely and began explaining why Google had no need for Skype.
“At that point,” recalls Chan, “Sergey gets up and says, ‘This is the dumbest shit I’ve ever seen.’ And Eric [Schmidt] gets up and walks out of the room. The deal’s off.”
Ruthless! Which of your darlings have you killed today?