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Google Now's Staff Exodus Reveals Hurdles for New CEO Pichai

What the saga of one standout product at Google says about Google.

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On Thursday, Microsoft fired up an old rivalry. The Redmond giant released an update to its Bing search app that allows other apps to tap into its information architecture. See something in one mobile app — a nice location shot in Instagram, say — and, with a tap, you can summon information about that something via Bing.

Nothing earth-shattering. But Microsoft happened to put out the release on Android first, and did so right before Google is set to launch Now on Tap, a nearly identical feature.

Google teased the product with some fanfare in May, at its I/O developer conference, as a breakthrough iteration of Google Now, its personal assistant and one of the twin bedrocks for CEO Larry Page when he returned as executive in 2011.

What went unannounced was that most of the original team that built Now had departed, many of them just before I/O, according to multiple sources. Some had grown frustrated that the product, born within Android, was shuttered into search inside of Google, they said. And Sundar Pichai, Google’s SVP and incoming CEO, did not prioritize the product as much as Page.

The exits reveal the hiccups Google has incubating new products that reach across multiple units of the tech giant. They also expose some key traits of Pichai’s leadership style — and some of the many hurdles he has ahead as he marshals Google’s core business.

Now launched at I/O in 2012 with Android Jelly Bean. It began, not many months before, as a side experiment within the Maps team. Engineers had rigged a way to scrape personal data on the phone — from calendars, email, location history — and feed the relevant bits to users via notifications, starting with transit data. “Initially, we wanted to do something that had no clicks,” said one early engineer.

Now escalated inside Google quickly, largely because it had the backing of Page. The product comports to his vision of a future with more intelligent, seamless computing. For several months after its launch, Page emphasized its importance to Google’s future. “He would open up every single all-hands [meeting] with Google Now,” said another former Googler who worked on the product.

Then, Page started to step away. He began holding regular, lengthy leadership meetings meant to spur out-there initiatives and moonshots, floating ideas like another research lab, code-named “Google Y,” according to multiple sources. He was laying the foundation for what would become Alphabet.

Meanwhile, Google’s core business, search, continues to lose steam with a key metric, cost-per-click, falling as mobile app usage skyrocketed. At some point last year Amit Singhal, the SVP who heads search, requested that Now move from Android into his division, multiple sources said.

Several engineers objected. According to multiple sources, their initial vision of Now — as a mobile assistant tailored to particular users — works best living on the mobile operating system, not within search.

Also, Google is a political place and search is Congress. Big, necessary, stodgy.

Pichai approved Singhal’s request. In part, perhaps, because Google must balance products like Now, which push information to users, with its central business problem: It makes less money from mobile searches. Google has started to deploy Now as a primary vehicle for indexing apps.

And the company remains bullish on the product’s prospects. “We’re seeing strong usage and very positive feedback,” a Google spokesperson said. “And we’re continuing to make Google Now work even better — continuing to add dozens of new cards, getting Now on Tap ready for release, improving our predictive technology, and iterating on the design and user experience.”

Another potential reason for the internal shift: Pichai is known as an executive who seeks consensus rather than conflict. A former Googler who worked on Now recalled Pichai’s response to their protests: “‘Look, I’ve got a lot on my plate. Chrome and Android are my top priorities. Google Now is not on that. I can’t fight that battle for you.’”

Now has its own battles in store. It has a solid user base, more than a hundred million monthly ones, according to multiple sources. (Google declined to comment on these numbers.) Yet it’s unclear how active those users are, and only a slim slice of them are on the iOS app.

Apple, for its part, looks prepared to launch a competitor to Now on Tap. With its proactive assistant and spotlight search, the Apple entry could elbow Google out. Several people said it was unusual for Google to pre-announce a feature like Now on Tap before it is ready. That hurriedness may have been to preempt Apple’s announcement the following month.

And now Bing, which powers search on Apple devices, has its own Now on Tap foil.

Microsoft has worked on the product for years and did not time its release around Google, said Ryan Gavin, general manager for Search, Cloud and Content. Still, Gavin did draw distinctions between the approaches, noting that Microsoft’s was far more favorable to app developers than Google.

“One’s a very open approach,” he said. “And the other is asking developers to register their app data with Google.”

Many developers are suspicious of Google’s mobile plans. Aparna Chennapragada, the product lead on Now starting this year, told Re/code last month that Now on Tap will solve app developers’ nagging issue with discovery. She’s well respected inside Google, but must roll out the product and get developers on board without much of the initial team.

Two of the engineers who created Now left the company in March; several others left around the same time. Only one of the founding team remains at Google, according to multiple sources. (Google, again, declined to comment on this.) For several, the experience of seeing their product steered in an unwanted direction was too dispiriting, they said.

“Google’s a big company,” said one person who departed. “This is how big companies work.”

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