Last week, we learned Google’s in-house R&D group, Area 120, had been severely impacted by the broader Google workforce reduction, impacting teams working on some of Google’s more experimental ideas. However, we understand now that at least three Area 120 projects have been spared from these latest cuts, and will go on to “graduate” to other parts of Google later this year. These include Aloud, an automated and less costly video dubbing solution; a privacy platform for app developers called Checks; and Liist, a consumer app quietly acquired by Google last year.
Most Area 120 projects have been developed in-house, making Liist a rare exception. The startup, which had raised $1.1 million in seed funding according to Crunchbase, offered a social bookmarking tool for saving places you find on the internet, including through apps like TikTok and Instagram. At Google’s Area 120, the team had been tasked with building a new consumer product.
While Aloud and Checks have obvious utility, easily fitting into other parts of Google’s organization, Liist is perhaps the more intriguing of the three Area 120 survivors. Ahead of Liist’s acquisition, Google had spoken about the threat to its core search and advertising businesses posed by TikTok and Instagram. At an industry event, Google SVP Prabhakar Raghavan, who runs Google’s Knowledge & Information organization, told an interviewer that the search giant’s own research found that young people now often didn’t start their searches for places on Google.
“In our studies, something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search,” he said. “They go to TikTok or Instagram.”
When live, Liist’s bookmarking app had touted a variety of use cases which included things like saving places for travel inspiration, planning nights out with friends, creating lists of date night spots, and more. Users could vote on where they wanted to go or could plan trips together, too. The app was also among the first to integrate with TikTok’s Jump platform, which allows users to jump from videos to experiences provided by third parties — like saving a recipe to Whisk’s app after watching a video where the recipe is demonstrated, for instance.
Liist’s app was shut down when the team joined Google, but co-founder David Friedl’s LinkedIn states the team has been working on a “Gen Z consumer product” within Area 120. No other details were provided.
According to an internal email to the Area 120 team shared with TechCrunch, Liist and the other remaining Area 120 projects will now come under the purview of Area 120 Managing Partner Elias Roman, as they move forward. The email was penned by veteran Googler Clay Bavor, who you may recall had taken over Area 120 as well as other AR and VR projects as part of a 2021 reorg, which branded this group of projects “Google Labs.”
Roman will also now lead a set of “applied A.I.” products under Senior Director of Product Management at Google Labs, Josh Woodward.
While the Area 120 layoffs are only a small percentage of Google’s recent cuts impacting 12,000 people, or 6% of its global workforce, the R&D group had spearheaded several innovations over the years that found success and exited to other parts of Google.
These included the HTML5 gaming platform for emerging markets called GameSnacks, which integrated with Google Chrome; the technical interview platform Byteboard, a rare external spinout; an AirTable rival called Tables which exited to Google Cloud; an A.I.-powered conversational ads platform AdLingo, which also exited to Cloud; video platforms Tangi and Shoploop, which exited to Google Search and Shopping, respectively; and the web-based travel app Touring Bird, which exited to Commerce, among others.
There were growing concerns, however, that Google no longer saw Area 120 as a key investment. Last September, the company slashed Area 120’s fourteen projects in development to just seven and told impacted employees they’d need to find new roles within Google. At the time, a Google spokesperson explained the group would be shifting its focus to projects that “build on Google’s deep investment in A.I.” and ” have the potential to solve important user problems.”
Bavor’s new email to Area 120 employees similarly highlights how Google’s experimentation is now more intensely focused on the impacts of A.I. across Google products, not the other types of projects that Area 120 become known for in prior years. As Bavor writes:
It’s clear that, as a company, we continue to face macroeconomic uncertainties. At the same time, there are enormous opportunities ahead of us in applying AI to reimagining so many of Google’s core products. With this as backdrop, I’ve made the difficult decision to wind down the majority of Area 120. For nearly seven years, Area 120 has been a source of bottom-up innovation across Google, and from it we’ve learned many lessons on how best to pursue zero-to-one opportunities. But with the unprecedented opportunities ahead of us, we need to shift to a model of new product development that is opinionated and focused.
I know this change is significant and unsettling. What hasn’t changed is the size of the opportunity ahead of us, especially in applied AI. Across our domains, I believe that Labs is doing some of the most important and potentially impactful work at Google. And now more than ever, the company is looking to us to execute well. I have full confidence that we will navigate this moment as a team and deliver in 2023.
The email comes in addition to Google and Alphabet’s CEO Sundar Pichai’s email about the layoffs, which was publicly shared on Google’s “The Keyword” blog.
Google has been asked for comment.