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Google - A Glass-Half-Full Company

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Did you know that Nokia used to make wellington boots? It takes a leap of imagination to get to mobile phones - but they did. And, at some point in the future, someone, somewhere will write: "Did you know that Google used to be a search engine..."

This is not me sounding the death-knell of them, quite the opposite. I, like millions of people around the globe this week, have been marvelling at the Google Glass concept - spectacles that link you into the internet and provide a host of features that enhance your daily grind (listen to me... selling the damn things for them). Couple this with an anecdote of a colleague who stood on a street corner in the US, mouth agape, as a Google driverless car sped past, and I am wondering just how far the company will evolve from its roots as a search engine.

Google is the latest in a wave of companies that, like Apple, Nike and other innovative brands, have re-defined the process of product development. They aren't manufacturers; they are scientist, designers, human interaction experts... Dreamers. For them, the messy process of mass manufacturing sits with someone else.

Creatively, this is ideal - as the TED joke goes: "I have this life changing idea... all it needs is someone to work out how to make it and we are set." If you're dreaming up something new, the last thing you want is someone asking how you'll actually make it... for under a few hundred dollars. Freedom from this worry leads to revolution, even if you do have to wait around for a few years before technology, data networks and manufacturing catch up. The concept of Google Glass was actually sitting on TED around five years ago - Google (yes, the irony) 'TED SixthSense' and watch in awe.

I know, and you know that outsourced manufacturing isn't new - my point isn't that Google has invented it - but I do believe they are creating a wholly new category of company for themselves. They aren't a software company anymore, and they are in a perfect position, with ideal resources, to capitalise on this fact. So what are they?

The gift, for Google, is that they don't have a large, existing infrastructure to worry about. Yes, they've got banks of servers, but that's pretty much it. By contrast, many of the traditional tech companies, such as Panasonic and Sony, have enormous facilities that make one type of product. Effectively, they are locked-in to a technology. Google's only locked into ideas.

In demonstration of this, Sony announced its 4th PlayStation this week - a device that's been around for almost 20 years. Sony is great at iteration - making the next product one step up from the last and using the existing infrastructure of the company very efficiently. But they are now up against the likes of Google, who, it turns out, are amazing at revolution and don't have the worry of a multi-thousand square metre factory dictating their next move.

Nor are they locked into the corporate secrecy enclave that many of the big manufacturers still subscribe to. Google's first self-driving car was an ugly-looking affair that wasn't all that great - we all saw it, and had a chuckle. They didn't bother with the usual automotive approach of weapons-grade secrecy. Google plays and tests in the real world, letting technology evolve and improve right in front of our eyes.

If you're sat there muttering that they are 'just re-using their data' then think on the fact that, with the purchase of Motorola Mobility, they secured more than 17,000 patents that give them access to a host of wireless technologies. Oh, and half of mobile handsets in the world run the Google Android software. Re-using their data is the reward for years of meticulous gathering and, as every technology maker will tell you, the hard part is creating content for new formats. Not much of a challenge for them, given how much they've got (at the start of 2012 they were processing 20,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of data a day).

For me there are four fundamentals that they've got right: firstly, they've uncoupled innovation from the churn of new products - letting ideas percolate and grow. Secondly, they don't do secrecy - beta products, free code and cobbled-together devices are regularly on show. Thirdly, they are not (yet) weighting themselves down with resources that channel them down one route - talking about spin off companies for the car technology, rather than facilities.

Finally, they are being very, very smart about how they leverage all of that information.

The looming challenges for them will be the patent war that's currently raging across the tech industry like a game of Monopoly, taking resources and cash to fight. And the difficulty of maintaining control of the supply chain when outsourcing so much - a point well proved by the horsemeat scandal in the UK and the issues that Tesla is having with its supply chain.

So what are Google? They are not upstarts or start-ups anymore, having now been around for 15 years. They are not evil (as they keep telling us). What they are is clever - they are a 'Clever Company', a niche category that so many others fail to grasp.