Category Archives: Innovation

Google’s “20% Time”: Goodbye to All That . . .

Google 貼牌冰箱(Google Refrigerator)

Google Refrigerator (Photo credit: Aray Chen)

A couple of weeks back, Atlantic Media’s business news outlet, Quartz, broke the story that Google’s famed “20%” time,” under which employees were supposedly encouraged to take up to 20% of their time to work on things not tied to their main position, was “as good as dead.” This perk has, of course, become a leitmotif whenever the table talk gets around to the subject of innovation — “We should all be like Google; they let their employees use 20% of their time to work on whatever they want.” Now, it would appear — at least if the initial Quartz piece is to be believed (and it spawned a great deal of contemplative thumb-sucking and follow-ups in the tech press) — that Google is getting more interested in having people just buckle down and do their jobs.

For its part, Google quickly followed up with a more or less information-free announcement declaring that 20% time is “alive and well,” showing that, whatever the policy’s actual status, the company understands its PR value. But just what is — or was — 20% time? The most reliable, and least exciting, statement of it comes in Larry Page’s “Founders’ IPO Letter,” included with the company’s 2004 S-1 when it went public: “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google.” Google software engineer Bharat Mediratta, in a much-linked “as-told-to” puff piece in the New York Times on “The Google Way,” said that the 20% time is “to work on something company-related that interests them personally.” If you parse it out, that’s not exactly what Page said (but then, Page was talking to shareholders . . .).

So far, so good; these statements, at least, root the policy’s rationale in the company’s ultimate goals. But the more broad-brush treatment in the tech press — which has variously described the policy as giving employees space to work on “creative side projects,” “their own independent projects,” “experimenting with their own ideas,” and even “anything they want” — summons up visions of an unstructured weekly play date divided among desultory coding, navel-gazing, skateboarding, and other pursuits (“Boss, it’s my 20% time; Tetris helps to unlock my creativity”). A lengthy, interesting, and ultimately amusing thread on Hacker News featured predictably libertarian and anti-corporate themes, rooting the fall from this creative programmers’ Eden in the infiltration of “MBA-think” and the profit motive into the “Don’t Be Evil” halls of the Googleplex.

The reality, as always, is more nuanced, and, perhaps a bit uncomfortably for Google, makes it look like just another company after all (albeit a hugely successful one). A follow-up piece in Quartz, drawn from the aforementioned Hacker News discussion, noted that, according to some Google engineers, although the 20% policy is still in place, it has become a losing proposition actually to use it, owing to increasing pressure on management to measure and rank employees based on their actual output, and the lack of an incentive structure built specifically around the “20% projects.” The result, of course, is that “20%” time is sometimes referred to among Google staffers as “120% time” — that is, the small percentage of motivated and creative (and, perhaps, obsessive) staff willing to eat into their personal time “are free, as at any other job, to use their nights and weekends to do even more work.” Wally (of Dilbert fame) was apparently more right than he knew.

All of this seems perfectly natural. A thoughtful post on Ars Technica suggested that 20% time may be dead because Google “doesn’t need it any more” — that the company is no longer in start-up mode and now needs to focus on consolidating what it has. And, hard as it is to avoid a bit of schadenfreude at any tarnishing of the company’s cooler-than-thou image, the reality is that Google will continue to innovate and we will all continue to chase Google. But what drives that innovation won’t be “20% time” as such. It will be, as always, the efforts of a handful of driven, creative individuals willing to sacrifice a piece of their “personal lives” for a cool idea.

Do We Really Want Books to Be “Social”?


Readmill (Photo credit: Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta)

Well! We read this morning in a post tweeted by Joe Esposito that “E-Books Could Be The Future Of Social Media.” In that post, technology journalist Michael Grothaus, after a paragraph or two declaring his ostensibly neo-Luddite preference for print books over electronic, spends his remaining on-screen inches in fulsome praise of Readmill, a “small but growing app . . . that seems to have its pulse on the future of reading.” Readmill, explains Henrik Berggren, the app’s CEO (and I was not aware until now that apps had CEOs), aims to turn e-books into “niche social networks” brimming with real-time interactions among readers — and, of course, piping all of the data on those interactions back to authors and publishers to help them “make more informed decisions.”

I’ll let you read the post for yourself; suffice to say, a number of things in it struck me as unintentionally funny. Start with the big banner image at the top: It shows a line of five people, sitting on a couch in an old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar bookstore, each immersed in a print book. There is not an e-book in sight. All of them look thoroughly absorbed in what they’re doing, and while none of them is smiling, a sense of vast contentment radiates from the photo.

Note that although this is, at least in the broadest sense, a group of people, they are engaged in a fundamentally solitary activity. And nothing is “broken” here — the print format’s support of sustained concentration, its momentary banishment of distraction, is a feature, not a bug.

It seems to me that this is likely to be true irrespective of the platform. In a moment of pure hubris, Berggren, in his interview with Grothaus, asserts that e-reader platforms like Amazon’s Kindle are “doing it in the wrong way,” kind of a remarkable statement given that Amazon owns 45% of the e-book market and the Kindle is what got them there. While there are many reasons for that success, I think you could make an argument that part of it of lies simply in the characteristics of the device itself, which (except perhaps in the case of the Kindle Fire) seems designed to be as book-like and distraction-free as possible. That, at least, is a big reason it’s worked for me. With my Kindle Paperwhite, I don’t just skim, I read.

There are larger social issues here than Amazon’s bottom line or the promise of apps like Readmill, when we think about what the rise of screen media has already done to our ability to engage with books as intellectual objects. Cory Doctorow memorably referred to the Internet as “an ecosystem of distraction technologies”; what happens when we start to embed them into activities, like reading, for which a lack of distraction is an essential part of the experience? We already have some idea, given the differing ways we interact with HTML pages versus PDFs versus print material. And an interesting survey earlier this year, focusing on the reading habits of children in the U.K. found that, yes, more children are now reading on electronic devices than in print, and they prefer it that way — but that “those who read only on screen are . . . three times less likely to enjoy reading (12% compared to 51%)” than those who read in print.

Certainly the world is changing, but it does seem worth thinking about these data and their implications for what the thing that we call “reading” actually is, and is becoming.

Also unintentionally funny in Grothaus’s article is his bout of hand-wringing over the implications of Readmill’s proposed business model. That model, like so many we are seeing these days, seems to revolve around selling data on user interactions back to interested parties — in this case, book publishers. Grothaus is worried: Won’t this mean that publishers will start to use these data to lean on authors and dictate their writing styles to boost sales? Berggren offers this glib response: “You can paint a very dystopian future where publishers say, ‘Oh, people are just skipping this chapter. You can’t write like this anymore.’ However, I think that’s unlikely to happen.”

Well, that’s a relief.

(Nota bene: Berggren’s response, in addition to being a dodge, shows how successfully we’ve managed to cheapen the term “dystopian.” You want dystopias, Henrik? I’ll show you some dystopias.)