Dear Google: Shouldn’t You Worry About Your Own Health?

Google CEO Larry Page at the 2013 IO conference. Photo: Alex Washburn/Wired

Larry Page is on a mission to prolong your life, and the pundits think he’s onto something.

Yesterday, when the Google chief exec revealed the startup that will drive his lofty mission, the press coverage was predictably cheerful.

But let’s get real. Whatever the humanitarian benefits of Google’s new venture, it’s an odd move for an internet conglomerate that said it’s trying to become more focused, a company that hasn’t developed a major new revenue line in 10 years.

Google’s new startup, Calico, may eventually turn into something useful. In a personal blog post, Google CEO Larry Page referred to the venture as a long-term investment that could be 10 times better than competing anti-aging remedies, and it doesn’t cost that much — at least at the moment. Page says the undisclosed sum put into Calico is “very small by comparison to our core business.”

But it could just as easily become a distraction. It’s certainly being lavished with attention: In addition to Page’s personal blog post, Google arranged for a Time cover story, in which Page compared the venture to NASA’s efforts to land on the moon.

It was only two summers ago that Page vowed in a Wall Street conference call to “put more wood behind fewer arrows” at Google. “Focus and prioritization are crucial, given our amazing opportunities,” he said. This commitment to focus is invoked whenever Google wants to kill off a product it has tired of, like Google Labs, Google Reader, or Calico’s predecessor Google Health.

Yes, Google has done health before. And failed.

The fewer-arrows thing makes sense. Google was blindsided by Facebook, and its ad rates, priced by demand, have been declining for nearly two years as it struggles to figure out the mobile market. The vast majority of its profit comes from AdWords, launched in 2000, and AdSense, launched in 2003.

Yet Google’s wild experiments continue. The company is pumping money into self-driving cars, flying power-plants, wireless internet blimps, $1,500 robot glasses, and, now, a fight against death itself. By Google’s own admission, it’s not clear that any of these ideas will ever make money for the company.

The clearest sign that Calico won’t help Google’s core business is probably the endorsement it received from Tim Cook, CEO of Google’s mortal enemy: Apple. Apple’s chairman Art Levinson will run Calico, and Cook says he’s “excited to see the results” of the venture.

None of this is to say Google shouldn’t fund research. Its spiritual predecessor, ATT, lavished money on the famed Bell Labs research subsidiary, and as a result, it greatly enhanced its telecommunications offerings, cut its costs, and invented the transistor, the laser, and the Unix operating system along the way. (For a fantastically readable history of Bell Labs, look to Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory“).

But it’s strange — and should be troubling to shareholders — that Google neglects medium-term development while lavishing attention on speculative long-term research. Products like Reader and the various Google Labs experiments might have seemed like small potatoes, but they at least had the potential to turn into revenue generators in a period of months or a couple of years.

Along with its moonshots, Google should make sure it doesn’t drop the ball on simpler projects, as it did with the early social network Orkut. Google never made Orkut a big priority, and then Facebook took over the world, necessitating the all-hands-on-deck launch of Google+ seven years later.

Calico is a nice idea. But a public company needs more than nice ideas.

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