The Memeburn interview: Google exec on the future of the ‘third screen’

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Meir Brand

We currently live in the world of three screens. We are connected to our PCs, mobile phones and tablets, and soon there will be more screens in our tech-obsessed world than we can imagine, says top Google exec Meir Brand.

Brand is fascinated with how technology will allow us to merge the physical world and the digital world. He believes that “man and machine are kept separate now. But in ten years, the technology will be a physical part of our bodies, and it will expand our capabilities.”

Brand may be awarded the same type of god-like reverence at Google as EMEA head Nelson Mattos. He is a member of Google’s management team for Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (SEEMEA) and is currently the Managing Director for Israel, Greece and Sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s easy to see what the fuss is about: Brand’s office is in Israel, currently dubbed the “startup nation”. Venture Capitalists praise the region for having “incredible entrepreneurial spirit and a deep bench of technology talent.” Even Apple has spent some serious change snapping up local startups. Something amazing must be happening there.

Google’s research centre in Tel Aviv is responsible for some really cool products including “Google Suggest” (the service that autocompletes your search results) and “Live Results in Search”, which gives users the option to find what they’re looking for in the search page without clicking on a link. The centre also gave us Insights for Search, “Got the wrong Bob” for Gmail (which allows users to confirm which “Bob” they intend sending an email to) and of course, it was responsible for digitising the Dead Sea Scrolls and Yad Vashem archive.

So, Google Israel is happening and Brand is partly responsible. According to the company, under his leadership Google Israel grew to become the leading advertising platform in the country. Since December 2009 he has also led the Greek and Southern African offices, both of which are currently also undergoing substantial growth. To date, the company has almost 350 employees in these three regions’ various business and research and development (R&D) centres.

We were given the opportunity to talk to Brand about Google’s African strategy and why there is so much startup activity in Israel. The Google exec believes that the status Israel currently enjoys is due its embedded risk-taking culture. He argues that the country is still quite young and is driven by innovation, technology and the celebration of entrepreneurship — something he says he has seen in Africa too.

The world is learning about mobile from Africa, he says, because the continent largely bypassed PC and went straight to mobile on its path to technological growth. And of course, the third screen.

Memeburn: We’ve obviously heard about Google’s Project Glass. How do you think we’re going to move the web and connectivity into the physical world in the future?

Brand: I think it took our generation some time to get used to three screens — the PC, the smartphone, now the tablet. And some of us are still only used to one screen. But when you think about the future, I think we’re going to get used to many more screens, and we can’t even imagine all the screens we’ll get used to. Glass is just another thought about what the next screen could be. Whether it will be Google Glasses or any other project or company that will succeed it’s still very early to say.

But what’s interesting is that some of the screens that come up will help us with one more thing that we still haven’t solved which is having a smoother connection between the physical world and the digital world. You can envision that, when you’re wearing glasses, and you’re outside in the park, and you’re checking your pulse or checking the weather… is this a digital experience or is this a physical experience? It’s really bridging the physical experience with digital relevant experience. I think we’ll see more of that happening.

Also, I think there is a good chance that screens will be everywhere. It could be on your clothes, glasses, on the walls… as prices cut down (and getting the internet to devices and building those devices is constantly getting cheaper) I think we’ll be in a world where everything around us is basically connected.

MB: Google has a number of projects in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa and beyond — how are those doing in terms of getting small businesses online?

Meir Brand: Take Woza Online, that’s a really interesting project and something that we’ve run globally. I think in Africa, we’ve run it in a few more countries. In the first three months, around 60 000 websites were published. In the first three to six months we saw 20 – 30 000 small businesses signing up in each country.

I think what’s interesting about it in Africa is that it’s playing two roles. One is that businesses that have an online presence grow faster and contribute more to the economic growth. They contribute more to employment which is a key thing. But the other aspect that is an extra benefit in Africa is that they actually contribute to putting more relevant content online because there is a lack of African content online. It’s particularly interesting in this region. We need to make the web more global.

MB: So what is Google doing to make the web more global?

Brand: We really try to work hard to make sure our own products work in different languages. Our search product works in various African languages and even some dialects, close to 40 languages, and we’re pushing that across all our products. We really want to make sure they’re relevant to the person who lives here [in Africa].

The other thing is empowering the ecosystem to produce content. I think we encourage developers and we work with developers in Africa to make sure they build applications and they build content that is relevant and that is African content.

The third thing I would think about is platforms. YouTube is a platform and again African content is coming up on this platform. So by providing easy platforms to easily access more people, we’re encouraging African content to get online.

MB: Is there more coming for Google users in Africa?

Brand: Africa is super important for Google. It’s important because we’re constantly talking about the excitement around the internet reaching its full potential, connecting the rest of the world. The next billion people who come into the internet world are going to come from emerging markets, and a big portion of that is going to come from this continent.

Think about the amount of innovation you see today on the internet, which is a result of how many people are connected to it. So think about how much more innovation we will see in the world when more people are connected to it. We’re very excited about it.

It’s also exciting as we’re progressing as a company. Google is all about bringing information to people. We started with search, but then we went into a whole variety of products that help connect people with information. But Africa brings us back to the core of this belief because we still haven’t solved the problem of giving everyone access to information. We’re still battling that in Africa.

Our strategy here is three-fold. One is to reduce the barriers to access: to reduce the price of access (which is still very expensive for many of the different segments in Africa) and making sure the user experience is a great user experience, reducing latency… we still have challenges in Africa.

The second piece of the strategy is about bringing more relevant content [online], working with the ecosystem to build that content — it’s not only us, with our products, but it’s really about enabling the other organisations, businesses and people to put their content online.

The third is to create a sustainable ecosystem, an ecosystem that is striving and will sustain for the long-term. So it’s not a one-shot thing. So you’ve seen different products that we’ve launched in the past, and I think that there is a dual strategy there. Taking the products that we’ve seen that work great everywhere, and adapting those to Africa. But also sometimes building specific unique products to Africa, like Trader and Gmail SMS, Google+ for feature phones, low-bandwidth Hangouts.

MB: Microsoft is moving to hardware with its Surface. Does Google have a future in hardware?

Brand: It’s interesting to look at the players in this industry. Apple has been very, very smart, and very successful, with combining software with hardware. We’re seeing Microsoft take some steps there. I think Google, at its core, is a technology company, and that’s what we do best. But it’s true that looking at the best ways to create great synergies between hardware and software makes a device with a great user experience.

It doesn’t necessarily mean we need to own that hardware piece, but it means that you need to work very closely with those that build hardware so that the unified experience of the software and hardware works well. Some people mention the fact that our purchase of Motorola brings us into the hardware space as well. We need to see what comes up in the future. But there’s no doubt that good linkage and synergy makes for a good user experience.

MB: Do you think the patent wars will eventually involve Android?

Brand: In general, I think what we focus on is where we can bring value to the users, and that’s what’s dictating what we do or not. Of course, we have to fit into the regulatory and legal environment.

We’ve seen that Android has changed billions of lives around the world by making the internet accessible on mobile. It’s a fantastic platform, both for consumers and for developers. We will do whatever it takes to make sure we continue to push innovation for consumers.

MB: Israel seems to be the new startup hub — how’s Google helping there?

Brand: Israel is a startup nation and it has to do partly with history, and focus around education and strong universities. There’s a great joke in Israel, about how all the Jewish mother wants is for her son to have a doctorate [in medicine], but the Jewish mothers have become more flexible in the last two decades and are also willing to accept engineering doctorates and computer science doctorates. There’s really encouragement of education, which is a key thing.

Some of it has to do with the culture: the Israeli culture is very entrepreneurial, and it goes hand in and with risk-taking. Some of it has to do with the history of Israel. Israel is a very young country. When the country was founded it was basically sand and nothing more. No natural resources. So the only difference people could make was with human capital and when they came to the country they took a lot of risk.

It’s almost embedded within the culture because the building and foundation of the country came with risk-taking, and people are used to that. Culturally, we also accept the fact that when you are a risk taker — you might fail.

People say “how is it that everyone wants to be an entrepreneur here and they’re not scared about failing?” You know this word in Hebrew called chutzpah? Chutzpah means you don’t take no for an answer, it means whatever the challenge, you’ll find a way to get through it, you’ll find a way to innovate and get around it. That’s a very entrepreneurial, startup mindset.

Then there is this issue that I think is also true of Africa. While Africa is huge in population and size, Israel is small and so always had to think global. So if you want to be a successful business in Israel, you can’t tailor it only to the domestic market’s needs because the population is too small. So you need to immediately think how you are going to reach global audiences. So you’re immediately thinking global, off from the start.

I think this is relevant in many ways to South Africa, because when you’re building an online business, there’s no reason to not think about a larger audience and not only that [audience] in South Africa. These are some of the key factors in how Israel became a startup nation.

Google is thriving in that environment because there is a very high fit between what Google is and what the country is about. It’s about innovation, technology, the celebration of entrepreneurialism — so it’s almost a natural fit.

We have a very successful R&D centre in Israel that’s driving a lot of the innovation at Google. We do activities around entrepreneurship, stuff that I’ve seen in Africa. We’re actually learning from our colleagues here in South Africa and France as well about how we can support tech hubs and help developers.

I’ve seen some really interesting stuff here in Africa, and we’re replicating some of that stuff in Israel. We’re also learning from Africa about this mobile world, because you guys leapfrogged what we did in the Western world, which was rather go through fixed line PC and then mobile, you guys leapfrogged immediately to mobile. In many cases I find the most sophisticated stuff coming from Africa, like mobile payments, micro payments, a lot of stuff that we’re actually learning.

So there’s mutual learning going on, from the sophisticated stuff we’re seeing in Israel and the stuff we’re seeing in Africa.

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