Judging from market multiples, it’s clear the market is skeptical of Apple’s ability to continue to succeed and has been for many years (currently, 1-yr forward P/E of ~15x despite recent re-rating), while holding limited concern for Google and Facebook (both 1-yr forward at ~26x).
This concern is understandable given the ever-changing tech environment and the long list of tech companies that have been buried over time (e.g. Nokia, Blackberry, Motorola). Even industry stalwarts of the bygone PC-era such as HP, Dell, and even Intel/Microsoft now stand on far weaker ground. And this concern for Apple is not new as Horace Dediu points out at Asymco.
However, I contend that Apple’s business model is far more robust than Google’s in the coming artificial intelligence (AI)-revolution.
Leaving aside potential differences in technical competency, AI is likely more complementary to Apple’s business model, but potentially highly disruptive to Google’s.
And to understand why, it requires understanding the job-to-be-done for search users and how Google’s ad-centric business model fits in.
The Assumptions Behind Search
Let’s start with the user – why do Google users search? What is the job-to-be-done?Seemingly simple question with a straight-forward answer: We are curious about many things and don’t have perfect knowledge. Google can help us answer what we don’t know. For most of Google Search’s existence, the service has approached this job-to-be-done by returning a curated list of search results that are most likely to match what the user is looking for. These are organic results that are designed to improve over time as the algorithm takes into account the answers/results users found most useful in the aggregate. Fairly simple and straight-forward.
So now turning to the business model – Google Search makes money on the ads that appear alongside search results. Every click on an ad (as opposed to an organic result) generates a small bit of revenue for Google.
Under what circumstances would a user prefer an ad over an organic result?
Philosophically, Ben Evans (A16Z partner and almost always more than a few steps ahead of the curve) hits the nail on the spot:
If Pagerank worked – really worked – it would only give you one answer and there'd be no ads (which are also a form of curation).
— Benedict Evans (@benedictevans) December 14, 2016
In essence, the existence of ads on Google Search is the most egregious effigy to the failure of the underlying search algorithm. Every time a user clicks on an ad, it is an implicit acknowledgement that Google Search did not accomplish its job-to-be-done, that the desired answer would not have been provided had the advertiser not paid for that placement.
Given a long enough time horizon, if Google Search is truly improving, barreling towards a future where Google can answer any question without doubt and with perfect context, Google’s business model would have to evolve because ads do not have an obvious place in that future.
And that future is coming closer with the advancements in AI.
Search and AI
What could search look like in an AI-driven world?
But, it could also be radically different such as the search results provided by assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.
Regardless of the ultimate direction, it’s clear that ads have a far less obvious place in this future. If AI can be used to surface the right answer the user needs, the user would have less of a need to click on an ad.
I think we’ve seen the first instance of this issue with Google’s recent Beauty and the Beast ad on Google Home. The Google Home assistant (like Alexa) does not offer a natural channel for ads, and as a result, Google will have to find increasingly creative ways to adapt their business model for the changing environment. But history is filled with examples of failed business model surgeries.
It also makes Google’s persistent pursuit of a hardware/software business model a la Apple much more understandable. Perhaps selling hardware isn’t just about protecting access to market (after all, it’s unlikely that Android will be unseated now that it is so entrenched, so why continue with the direct hardware efforts?), it could be a deliberate attempt to evolve their business model to ensure financial relevancy in the AI-driven future.
Why Investors Seem Complacent
I contend that investors (or analysts) are confusing two separate concepts to be the same thing – the universal desire to know (hence search) and the need for ads to provide that information.
There is no doubt that search queries will only grow. It’s not farfetched to imagine a future where there are 7 billion search users instead of the less than 2 billion today. But that’s a far different conclusion from assuming Google’s financial future and business model are robust as long as search queries grow.
Search is robust, but are ads robust relative to our AI-future?
Apple’s Business Model is Far More Complementary to AI
Apple’s business model, on the other hand, is much more aligned. Sell the best products available for customers’ job-to-be-done.
AI is not orthogonal to this pursuit and business model. The only question is whether Apple has the technological capabilities to do so. However, even under the assumption that Apple is not the leader in AI-technology, it is not clear that it matters. After all, Apple was not the original leader in GUIs (Xerox PARC was). Apple was not the original leader in phones (Microsoft, Palm, Blackberry, Nokia, etc. were). Despite not being the original leader, Apple had the business model and insight to ensure that they could ride the underlying technological trend, and if I were to take a bet today, I believe Apple’s business model makes them more prepared to usher in an AI-world than Google is. AI is a feature to Apple. AI is a potential danger to Google’s business model.
From a business model standpoint, Apple is far more robust in an AI-world.
What About Facebook?
Facebook’s an ad-driven business model. What about them? Surely, Facebook is potentially in danger as well.
Facebook’s situation is less clear cut because the job-to-be-done for users is different vs search. Search has a “right” set of answers. Facebook’s feeds do not. Users are not necessarily searching for anything specific but rather using the services as an outlet for time. The “wrong” answer in a search query is far more obvious than a “wrong” answer in a Facebook feed.
And if AI can be used effectively to ensure that organic content on News Feed, Instagram, etc. are more relevant and engaging, then perhaps that can even offset any deterioration in experience from an increase in ad load. AI can never make Google’s organic results more engaging to the point where a user will tolerate a less user-friendly ad environment.
Facebook’s job-to-be-done is to, cynically, offer a time sink. Google’s job-to-be-done is to get you your answer as fast as possible. One of these is more complementary for an ad-driven business model.
Is Google as robust as investors think? Borrowing from Peter Thiel – is this something that could be true that no one believes? Is Apple in as much danger as the average person believes?
Disclosure: I have no direct beneficial interest in AAPL, GOOGL, or FB as of publishing date and have no intent to initiate a position within the next 48 hours.