Are maps and localization driving Google’s robot strategies?

Now that Google has confirmed reports of the acquisitions of eight robotic companies much speculation is being made of where the search giant is heading.Google where to?

My own belief is this is very much part of their mobile strategy, and if it is not, it certainly has generated a significant amount of press and media attention, despite the probable sizes of the deals being small by Google’s standards. In their latest 10Q filing (pdf), the company reported during the nine months ended September 30, 2013, they completed 21 acquisitions and purchases of intangible assets, 20 of these, (which are likely to be most of the robotic companies) were for a relatively small amount of approximately $369 million. The other acquisition during this period was Waze, a provider of a mobile map application, which provides turn-by-turn navigation and real-time traffic updates powered by incidents and route information submitted by a community of users, for a total cash consideration of $969 million. Google writes:

The acquisition is expected to enhance our customers’ user experience by offering real-time traffic information to meet users’ daily navigation needs.

Effectively the acquisition of Waze is nearly 3 times as much as the combined purchase price of the 20 other companies. Let us also remember that as recent as April 2012 Google paid a staggering $12.4 billion total purchase price for Motorola (they subsequently sold Motorola home for $2.4 billion and retain focus on Motorola mobile).

In Google’s 2012 10K (pdf annual report) the company reflects on the acquisition of Motorola:

We expect to continue to devote significant resources to the creation, support, and maintenance of mobile products and services… to capture the opportunities available as consumers and advertisers transition to a dynamic, multi-screen environment.

The multi-screen environments move from personal computers to “mobile phones, smartphones, handheld computers such as netbooks and tablets, video game consoles, and television set-top devices.”

Adding:

The acquisition is expected to protect and advance our Android ecosystem and enhance competition in mobile computing. 

It’s not uncommon for Google to spend a lot on acquisitions, some of which would never get the press coverage a robot or big dog will. Yet during the year ended December 31, 2012, Google spent over $1 billion ($1,171) on 52 other acquisitions (in addition to Motorola) that ‘generally enhance the breadth and depth of our expertise in engineering and other functional areas, our technologies, and our product offerings.’  But little is written of what that $1,171 was spent on, despite it being significantly higher than the acquisition spending in the 9 months ended September 2013 (excluding Waze). Although at least some of the cash in 2012 went on speech recognition technology!

The man spearheading Google’s robotic acquisitions and project is Andy Rubin, the former head of the hugely successful Android development, the person that was effectively challenged with establishing Google’s foothold in mobile, the area they see as being strategically important to their future cash-flows as users turn more and more to multi-screen browsing.

So why the question — Are maps and localization driving Google’s robot strategies?

It’s clear the Motorola and Waze acquisitions together with Google Maps, StreetView, Nexus 7 (Google’s tablet) and Android are establishing a mobile ecosystem and Google sees Maps as a crucial part of an operating system for mobile devices.

Maps is already generating around 20% of search queries and according to the New York Times article (link above) Google indicates the same amount of advertising revenues is connected to map searches. It seems Google has a clear vision of combining maps and mobile to ensure it continues to grow its $50 billion plus per year revenues.

The sheer amount of human effort that goes into Google’s maps is just mind-boggling and the geographic data Google has assembled is not likely to be matched by any other company. We can now navigate around shopping malls with Google’s Indoor maps, in fact Street View now includes the ability to navigate inside of Gatwick Airport, Waterloo Station, and even inside an Airbus A380 on the runway at Dubai Airport.

Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, has promised to release self-driving technology within four years, and Google’s maps will then be a standard feature in its robot cars. Likewise maps are integral to Google Glass another of the ‘moonshot’ projects Google is working on.

Google Ventures recently announced a $250 million investment in Uber the ‘taxi service’ and again maps will be one of the driving factors behind this investment.

Google’s home delivery service, Shopping Express, which provides same day delivery service, relies heavily on maps.

Maps are clearly at the core of Google’s development strategy, from driverless cars, online shopping and search, to wearable technology. Many of the recent robot acquisitions will enhance Google’s mobile strategy and improve its delivery services, hardware capabilities and above all localization experiences.

Google revenues are dependent upon growing advertisement revenues and the closer it gets to users through localization and awareness of consumer habits through mobile technology and maps the more it can increase its sophisticated and timely service to advertisers.

According to Alexis Madrigal writing in The Atlantic magazine: “Google’s geographic data may become its most valuable asset. Not solely because of this data alone, but because location data makes everything else Google does and knows more valuable.

Google is reshaping the computer question “where do you want to go today?” And that makes for improved search and services for all of us. It seems that Google has a big part to play in the Robot Economy…

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