The revelation that Google is developing its own reflective surfaces for solar thermal technologies and a turbine that can connect directly to a solar thermal collector is great news – for Microsoft.
Generally, when high-tech companies try to branch out and then fail, the attempt becomes an embarrassing distraction that leads to lots of soul searching.
Remember Apple's venture into the Newton and handheld devices back in the 1990s, or its gaming platform, or its early online communities? Or how Intel tried to move into: (1) ISP services, (2) consumer electronics, (3) communications chips and (4) cameras? Or Sony desktops? They all fell flat. Apple made a comeback in handhelds, but it took ten years and completely new products. And these were adjacent markets. Google's push into solar has very little, if anything, to do with its core search business.
These side ventures typically fail for two reasons. First, the side venture must engage in a continual and ultimately futile hunt for resources. One of the execs in Intel's communication group told me once how he would ask for R&D funds every year. The board would ask him if the group would ever be as big as the processor business. No, was the reply. He didn't get the funds. If you worked at Google, what would be a more promising career path: overseeing a new advertising platform or putting together a solar farm?
Second, there is what I call the Engineer's Fatal Flaw: I passed physics, therefore I know everything. Deep down, Google's move into alternative energy is predicated on the idea that it made billions of dollars with some really novel search technologies. Let's face it: The reason some people think they could make a difference in solar is because they are rich. It's not the track record in material science. Imagine if Yahoo said it was doing the same thing: Critics would scoff, and cite the fact that people are turning away from its horoscope pages. Intelligence from one realm doesn't necessarily pass to another realm.
Desperation will also play a role. Google is already venturing into technologies that other companies are mining. HelioFocus has developed a solar turbine (see story here). And lots of companies – eSolar, BrightSource, Skyfuel, Abengoa, Schott, most of the major chemical companies – are working on that too. If they fail, they're unemployed. If Google's team fails, they'll probably get some free T-shirts and a transfer to a new division.