Google’s Struggle for Relevance

One of the great truisms of being a successful technology company is that just when you reach the top of the heap, if you sit down, you’ll slide off.

And that’s why, in a month where we’ve just seen HP disassemble itself, I have to hand it to Google: It really and truly is pulling out all the stops in order to be relevant as the social / mobile Web takes hold.

Faster than digital predecessors who have championed a technology generation and then found themselves in peril, Google seems to be reconciled to the fact that, as my Chief Operating Officer Rob Grady would say, “What got them here, won’t get them there.”

In this case, the victory of desktop search is already proving to be hollow as we approach a change in technology generations.

I’ve been reading Steven Levy’s “In The Plex” over the last couple of weeks, and what’s most remarkable to me about this love letter to Google is the genuinely revolutionary orientation and nature of the company. Indeed, Googlers are happy to set aside convention in order to reinvent.

It’s a high-risk attitude, but hopefully it can generate high rewards in a time of change.

In recent months, Google has tried to reassert its revolutionary culture and transform itself, in order to avoid the stale fate that has befallen Microsoft and so many other technology behemoths that just couldn’t flow gracefully into the future.

I’ve tried to add analytical context and dimension to this sad syndrome in three recently published articles in Fortune:

My sense is that Google must confront formidable challenges; and yet, it’s way too early to run Google down, or write it off.

Judgment Day on the desperately wanna-be social Google+ still awaits Larry Page and his executive team. And Android, Google’s mobile platform that so wants to be as cool as Apple’s iPhone, has increased its share of the smartphone market – from 17 percent to 43 percent – over the past year.

Which leads us to Google’s recent $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility.

This deal was expensive. And visionary. And, more than anything, it reflects Google’s fierce — and creative — spirit toward its competitors.

There are arguments about whether the Motorola transaction was offensive, to help Google drastically accelerate its Android bet; or defensive, to amass patents that will enable Google to block the competition and defend its own advantages.

But, more than anything, the deal demonstrates the most remarkable gene sequence in the Google DNA: Google recognizes how things change; and it stops at nothing — even multi-billion-dollar acquisitions — so it can be a huge part of what’s new.

With smartphones overtaking PC’s, Google, a desktop search company, clearly recognizes the danger it faces, and absolutely wants to move on to the next big thing.

But the central question as Google tries to innovate for the impending five-year cycle is whether the company can see the next visible technology horizon, which extends decades out, and whether it can adapt the rest of its DNA to meet the market.

Unfortunately, I’m just not certain that Page & Co.’s vision extends that far.

But time will tell.