When it’s railroading time, you get railroads. “Innovation” is the intersection of collage and timing. For hundreds of years, people observed the action of a screw-press and the motion of a twirling maple-key, and invented the helicopter:
But of course, they didn’t invent the helicopter! No one invented the helicopter, until someone else had invented new lightweight alloys, as well as fossil fuel refining techniques, as well as internal combustion engines:
Once all those factors were in place, lots of people independently invented the helicopter. Same goes for TV, radio, and many other inventions. When it’s railroading time, you get railroads. It takes some creativity to invent the railroad, but creativity is an abundant element in the human condition. Creativity doesn’t get you anything until other people have build the substrate for your invention.
What we take for singular vision is best understood as lucky timing. Receiving the patent for the radio doesn’t mean you and you alone could invent the radio — it means you lucked into being alive when all the underlying technologies were in place, and you beat everyone else with the ability to invent radio to the patent office by a minute or two.
The Good Timing Theory of Innovation explains a lot about the successes and failures of the heavily mythologized tech founders and the companies they run. It explains how Google could launch such as fantastic search-engine and then launch a string of failed products, from G+ to Google Video to Stadia. Google’s success stories (its ad-tech stack, its mobile platform, its collaborative office suite, its server-management tech, its video platform…) are all acquisitions.
Besides search, Google’s only had two other in-house successes: they made a great Hotmail clone (Gmail), and they got more than a billion people to use Google Photos (but only by bundling it with Android, a mobile operating system they bought from someone else).
Google didn’t invent its way to glory — it bought its way there.