Liz Gannes

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Sundar Pichai: Google Drive Is About Context, Where Competitors Are About Files

Sundar Pichai

In advance of the release of Google Drive, I sat down yesterday with Google SVP of Chrome and Apps Sundar Pichai and Google Drive product head Scott Johnston. I asked them to elaborate on how Google Drive emerged from within Google, how the product compares to the competition, and where they see it evolving.

What’s ironic is that Pichai was the guy who helped kill a previous product called Google Drive, or GDrive, as detailed in Steven Levy’s “In the Plex”:

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.”

Pichai is still not a fan of files — in fact, his criticism of Dropbox and others is that they’re all about file management –  but he’s come around on “having data available in context.” Here’s an edited transcript of our chat from yesterday:

Liz Gannes: With Google Drive, you’re straddling distinctions between personal and organizational use, and personal storage versus sharing. As a user of Google Docs, Dropbox and others, I often get confused across that juncture about who can see things. How do you design for that?

Sundar Pichai: We strongly believe in the consumerization of the enterprise, and that’s the pillar of all our Google Apps strategy. At work and at home, we try to bring the same set of products. There’s some work in bridging the shift, but examples like the iPad bridge it pretty well. We have good controls in place — an admin can control when you’re using Drive within a company — but it’s an area we can do a lot more in.

Who can see what’s in my Google Drive folder?

Scott Johnston: This is a big shift, in that, really, the Google Drive folder is yours. Only things go in there that you create or that you move there explicitly. There’s a new “shared with me” view, and then you can move them into your Drive if you want. So it’s really this space that you control.

Do you see people using their Google Drive as their backup for everything?

Pichai: It’s a good question. I’m probably not the best representative use case, but the first time I got my access, I put my family pictures there, for safety and peace of mind. I don’t think that problem is well-solved today, so having a very safe, secure place to store, which is cost-affordable, I think is a good opportunity. We also really want people to have data anytime, anywhere.

So — yes?

Pichai: Yes, it’s a long way of saying yes.

What’s the team that created this project? I know Google Drive had been “killed” internally before, but what about this group?

Scott Johnston

Johnston: I came onboard Google in 2006 when we were acquired at JotSpot, and joined the Docs team. On that team, as we got better and better at collaboration on different file types, we started seeing them more and more in our everyday life; for planning a birthday party or, internally, our designers were constantly sharing mocks. And it was this idea of getting out of the way of the user so they don’t have to think about where their stuff is, and they can just do what they’re trying to do. It was a natural evolution of Docs. This is just more touchpoints to access your data.

Is there continuity with previous Google Drive products?

Pichai: What Scott’s talking about, Google Drive as an evolution of Docs, is one thing. Early on, we had a project called Google Drive that was completely different.

What was different?

Pichai: There was a very traditional file system approach, a long time ago, having nothing to do with Google Docs. It was pre-mobile, pre-tablet, with deep integration into My Documents and Windows, et cetera. So it was very different.

Why is this a good product now?

Pichai: Today, when I look at different solutions out there, those are still in the old metaphor of “here are files that you want, manage them.” This is about you living your life online — planning a wedding, buying a house — and having your data available in that context. I think it’s a big pivot, and that’s what excites me and makes it a good product. It’s in the natural flow.

I wouldn’t underestimate the fact that you can use it not just with Google but with third-party applications over time will be a big differentiator. And third is, deep search is very powerful. There is a lot of deep computer science in there, the fact that you can comment on any file type, that there’s full-text indexing with optical character recognition, all that happens magically with our infrastructure.

Johnston: There’s also being able to offer up to 16 terabytes of storage per user.

It’s kind of unusual for you to ask consumers to pay for Google products, right?

Pichai: Today, people are paying for Gmail and Picasa storage. For power users, it is popular. We’ve kind of made it very hard for you to do, but [Google Drive] is very easy. When you do upgrade here, your Gmail automatically goes up to 25 gigs. Over time, given how much Google Apps are the center of many users’ life, and you want to store safely and securely, I think it’s a good model and it’s a pretty good deal.

I know you’ve been working on Google Drive, in various iterations, for a long time. Why are you releasing it now, especially if some key parts are not done?

Pichai: We wanted all of this to be done — iOS, Gmail, etc. We picked a schedule and, like, 18 things made the train, and two got left out, but they will get added in after. The fact that Gmail got delayed and G+ made it, I wouldn’t have known a month ago.

Is this like the Chrome browser, where you guys promised a Mac version was coming soon, and then it took a couple years?

Pichai: Sorry about that. We dramatically underestimated what it would take to do Chrome on the Mac. IOS is a very different story. It works today. IOS is 98 percent done, and it will be here soon.

No matter what you say or launch, the takeaway is going to be, “Google launches Dropbox competitor.” What do you make of the competitive landscape?

Pichai: I think if we wanted to do it, we would have approached it very differently. We’ve gone to great lengths to built it around an online application experience. We want this to be about creating and collaborating — and your data is there for you. I think others have taken a file/data approach, and saying you have [access to] that everywhere. It’s nuanced, but I think it’s very different.

And for an active Google user, the integration we provide is very valuable. [As for Dropbox,]  I think the work they’ve done is great. This is a secular shift in terms of how people are living in the cloud, and I think it’s good to have innovation in the space.

Are we going to see TV ads for this?

Pichai: Not that I know of.

Johnston: The Super Bowl’s a long time from now.

Pichai: If the Niners make it.


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work