In 1997, AltaVista was the rising star of web search engines, earning an unheard-of-at-the-time $50 million in sponsorship revenue in one year alone. On June 28, 2013, Yahoo shut down AltaVista after years of experimentation as a portal and ultimate failure, replaced by the much more powerful Google search engine.
In 1999, Palm Computing launched the Palm V, a beautiful aluminum device that still defines modern hardware design today. After an acquisition by HP, the Palm brand was unceremoniously shuttered in 2011.
I think you can see where this is going. Technology brands, like nation states, are ephemeral. What is today's behemoth of a product is tomorrow's Wiki "See also." We see brands become dominant players, expand their portfolios, spread themselves too thin and split apart at the seams. It happens time and again, and I think it's pretty fair to say it'll happen again, in this case with Google. Of course, each of these examples has its own story and idiosyncrasies, but the story is a short one: create innovative product, explode onto the scene, get huge, try to replicate, spend all your money, lose your talent, spin your wheels, die.
"Google? Die?!" you say? Yes. It could happen for exactly the same reasons other brands have failed.
When Google started in 1996, it was just a couple Ph.D. students' attempt at fixing web search. By 2011, it passed a billion unique visitors per month. As of today, it has a market cap of almost $300 billion. For comparison's sake, General Motors has a market cap of around $50 billion. IBM's is around $200 billion.
Of course, Google isn't going anywhere any time soon. But people love to imagine where Google will be in 10 years, imagining a future dominated by Google Television Networks, Apple cars and Samsung homes, and I'm here to say that those predictions may be a bit myopic.
But isn't it possible that we're seeing Google spread itself thin at this very moment? A quick look at its product portfolio could give that impression. To an investor and fan, you'd simply say that they're just diversifying, which is what any good business should do. But how far is too far? At what point does Google thin out?
Google is still, at its core, a search engine. And it dominates the internet with that, telling us what is and what isn't relevant, and it does an excellent job of it. But beyond that, Google has a mobile operating system, a computer OS and accompanying laptops, email and online productivity tools, a translation service, a news aggregator, a small high-speed fiber network, a web browser, a social network, a wireless payment system and a wearable HUD.
That's quite a list, and it's totally reasonable to say that if any of those things failed, Google would be absolutely fine. The shutdown of Wave and Reader certainly didn't ding it outside of some snarky commentary from the press.
But what happens in 10 or 20 years if these products haven't matured into things we use every day like Gmail? (Though, to be fair, several already have.) Does Google lose its luster and become another General Motors that needs to reinvent itself and show that it can be innovative just like the little guys? The writing is on the wall, perhaps, and if we've learned anything from the history of corporations, imagining a future dominated by Google is probably only half-accurate.
And if you think that Google will be the top search engine forever, keep in mind that the internet is still very young. We've already seen HotBot, Yahoo, Excite, WebCrawler, Ask Jeeves and AltaVista come and go. Who are we to assume that Google is the final search engine? As Facebook fine-tunes its social-based Graph Search, we'll probably see more socially relevant engines heat up. Maybe Bing will finally jump out ahead with more meaningful results. Meanwhile, as content continues to shift away from simple text and graphics, new algorithms will be required in order to make results relevant. Soon we won't just be looking for article headlines, images and videos. We'll be looking for networks, trends, memes, geographies and more.
In short, Google as we know it will die. I don't know when, but history is bound to repeat itself. Perhaps it'll shift its focus, and maybe that's why Google is getting its feet wet in just about every technology, hedging its bets, ready to dominate the next big thing.
Either way, I think there's a good chance that Google won't be the search engine of choice for your children.
Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.