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Google Gobbles Up Innovative Startup Kifi
by
Posted On August 23, 2016
On July 12, 2016, collaboration software company Kifi announced that its team would be joining Google, but that its services and data would not become part of Google. Kifi’s account holders were still able to access Kifi to export their data for several weeks after the announcement, but the company stopped accepting new registrations. So, why would Google acquire a company just to dump its innovative product and hire the entrepreneurs behind it? It turns out that this has become a pattern, not only for Google but also for other Silicon Valley companies.

In April 2015, TIME noted, “As the core of dominant technology companies get larger, they have come to depend on acquisitions not only to broaden their businesses but also to sustain the pace of innovation.” Over the years, Google has used acquisitions to add interesting technology to its portfolio. In the case of Kifi, Google has no intention of continuing its services, but will incorporate the Kifi development team into its Spaces division.

TIME reported that an “analysis of startup founders’ LinkedIn profiles found that about two-thirds of the startup founders that accepted jobs at Google between 2006 and 2014 are still with the company. Amazon has retained about 55% of its founders over that time period, while Microsoft’s rate is below 45%. Facebook, with a 75% retention rate for founders, is beating its older competitors, but the company only began acquiring companies in significant numbers around 2010 or so. Yahoo and Apple, which have both gone on acquisition sprees under new CEOs Marissa Mayer and Tim Cook in the last two years, now have a similar retention rate to Google.”

For entrepreneurs, a company such as Google offers many rewards, according to TIME: “At the core of Google’s pitch to founders is the opportunity for bountiful resources. Sure, those can be scratched and clawed for independently, but going it alone requires a lot more time, money and luck than hitching your wagon to one of the richest companies on Earth.” Kifi’s team says, “We see a lot of alignment to Google’s mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Our team will … build solutions focused on improving group sharing, conversation, and content finding” (emphasis in original).

Google’s Acquisitions Strategy

Existing customers are left to find another product to replace Kifi. Data Science Central’s Nilesh Jethwa has done an excellent analysis of Google’s corporate acquisitions and where they have fallen into the Google (and Alphabet) organization. Mike Elgan notes in COMPUTERWORLD,“Spaces is not a social network. Nobody can follow you as a person, and you can’t follow other people. You have to invite people from outside Spaces. This absence of social following highlights one of the benefits of Spaces: You don’t ‘post’ something and hope the members of a social network find it or mark it as ‘liked.’ You’re not in some ego-driven competition for followers. It’s not about creating viral content, because there’s no place for your content to go.” Spaces hasn’t caught on as Google might have hoped, but the company’s deep pockets allow for tinkering with it.

Many of Google’s acquisitions have been buried deep inside the company’s structure; some were bought seemingly to add to its talent pool. The company is well-known for having more hits than misses in its acquisitions efforts, though: YouTube, Android, Applied Semantics, Motorola, DoubleClick, and many others. Will Kifi’s structure be somehow folded into Spaces, despite the announcement otherwise? Or will Kifi be buried, while its talented development team works on other projects for the search company?

Kifi: An Excellent Collaboration and Sharing Tool

Kifi has received positive reviews and evaluations in the press since its launch in 2014—something Google surely noticed. What set Kifi apart from other products, such as Evernote and the Google Bookmarks extension, was the simple yet effective “search, save, share” structure that the company devised and continued to evolve over the past 2 years. Users were able to easily save all of their links into a personalized search engine along with recommendations from other users. Kifi was able to not only save Twitter links, but also index the content contained in those links, which made searching for information from the files more comprehensive. In May 2015, Mark Yoshitake, Kifi’s VP of product, announced the ability for users to add notes “to each Keep in your Library, across all platforms, including Kifi.com, and our Chrome, Firefox, iOS, and Android apps. Our users have told us this is what they’ve wanted, so that they can personalize their libraries, tell stories about their keeps and more easily remember and use the knowledge they’ve kept.”

Kifi allowed users to collect, organize, and share knowledge with competence and style. They could link to webpages or make chat comments from webpages or other sources. It was easy to set up by importing bookmarks from their browser or services such as Delicious, Evernote, Diigo, Pinboard, Pocket, or Instapaper. Kifi integrated with Slack and Twitter too.

This attention to detail, ongoing product development, and user interests was noteworthy—as was the enormous growth that Kifi experienced. Yoshitake wrote that “the notes are fully searchable, just like the actual underlying content of the 2.5 million pages indexed in Kifi. Our unmatched searchability makes it easier for you to find information you need and people who share your interests. Notes searchability means that you will be able to better recall what you were thinking when you saved your Keep.”

Eddie Kessler, Google’s engineering director, welcomed the Kifi team, “with their great expertise in organizing shared content and conversations,” on his Google+ profile. For discouraged Kifi clients, we can only hope that this injection of new ideas into Spaces will benefit users who need creative ways to collaborate on and share information.

Benefits for Spaces

Spaces has the feel of a group Google Hangout for archived content—with a few extras added on. Kifi’s mission of connecting people with knowledge can only enhance the quality of future Spaces development. In a post on Engadget released the same day as the acquisition announcement, Jon Fingas wrote, “It’s no secret that Google Spaces in its current incarnation is … undercooked. The group-oriented app [is] missing features you might expect from an internet giant, and those features that are there don’t always behave like you’d expect. Google is in it for the long haul, though. … The Kifi team isn’t shy about what it’ll be doing—it’s joining the Spaces team to improve its underlying features. While you’ll probably have to wait some time to see what that entails, it’s clear that Spaces isn’t going to wither from neglect.”

Lulu Chang writes on the Digital Trends blog that “Google’s foray into social networks hasn’t been the most successful of its venture (let’s be honest, how many of us actively utilize our Google+ accounts?), but with the tech giant’s latest acquisition, the firm may be looking to shake things up.” In this world of fast-paced changes and growing stores of information on every potential topic imaginable, we need better tools—at all levels—to help us capture, store, index, access, and reuse every key resource we are able to find. We can only hope that Google soon provides the space that these tasks require. Kifi gave us a taste of a better system; now the ball is in Google’s court.

Google’s Strategies

Figuring out what Google might do next is risky at best. Some of its acquisitions—or “acqui-hires” as the media has called them—are clearly seen in new product iterations. But some of the acquisitions seem to lose their charms once situated under the Google mantle.

We know a few things for sure. First, Google is big—very big. Shares of Google and its parent company, Alphabet, moved up 15% in 1 day in July 2015. “Google’s market is already around $400 billion and it rose up with $50 billion more during that day. This earning of Google became the largest single-day earning ever,” according to Realtytoday.com.

Second, despite this largess, Google often acts like a startup, changing directions or product efforts in ways that seem odd or unexplainable to the outsider.

Third, Google is willing to pay big bucks for companies it is interested in acquiring, such as the $3.2 billion it paid for a smart thermostat company early this year.

Fourth, Google’s executives have their own priorities and methods of assessment for new products or acquisitions. CEO Larry Page, “[i]nstead of diving into the nitty-gritty of cash flow and earnings, … cares about usefulness and long-term investment and benefits,” Business Insider reports. The New York Times notes that Page “asks whether the acquisition passes the toothbrush test: Is it something you will use once or twice a day, and does it make your life better?”

Last, Google—perhaps due to both its size and assets—has been able to work in relative secrecy that has allowed for guesstimates and theories on its next major project. The Google Science rumors of 2014, based on a widely circulated presentation PDF, led many to assume that Google was planning to move more directly into research services. Google has never commented on this. Remember Google’s barge that appeared in San Francisco Bay in 2013? The company prefers to explore new ventures away from public scrutiny.

The company invests in anything, including windmills, drones, a human-powered monorail, a super-fast fiber optic internet system, solar mirror panels, and 3D printing. Google’s founders have always believed in dreaming big and trying to change the world. We can hope that its latest move of breaking up Kifi results in positive changes for searchers in its space.


Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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