Google cancels half of the projects of its internal R&D Area 120 group • TechCrunch

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, speaking at the Code conference last week, suggested the tech company needed to become 20% more efficient – a comment some in the industry took as a sign that cuts in workforce may soon be on the table. Now it looks like the prediction is coming true. TechCrunch has learned and Google has confirmed that the company is reducing projects for its internal R&D division known as Area 120.

The company informed staff on Tuesday of a “downsizing” that will see the size of the incubator cut in half, as half of the teams working on new product innovations learned that their projects were cancelled. Previously, there were 14 projects housed in the 120 area, and that has been reduced to just seven. Employees whose projects will not continue have been told they will have to find new employment with Google by the end of January 2023, otherwise they will be dismissed. It is not clear that everyone will be able to do this.

According to Area 120 head Elias Roman, the division aims to focus solely on AI-focused projects, as opposed to its previous mandate of powering product incubation across Google.

TechCrunch learned of the changes from a source with knowledge of the matter. Google confirmed the changes in a statement.

“The Area 120 is an internal incubator for new experimental products. The group regularly starts and stops projects to pursue the most promising opportunities,” a Google spokesperson said. “We recently announced that Area 120 will focus on projects that build on Google’s deep investment in AI and have the potential to solve important user problems. As a result, Area 120 is ending several projects to make room for new work. Affected team members will receive dedicated support as they explore new projects and opportunities at Google.”

Over the years, the division has launched a number of successful products, including the HTML5 gaming platform GameSnacks, now integrated with Google Chrome; an AirTable rival called Tables which was released on Google Cloud; an AI-powered conversational ads platform AdLingo, which has also been released to the cloud; the Tangi and Shoploop video platforms, which exited to Google Search and Shopping respectively; online travel app Touring Bird, which left Commerce; and a technical maintenance platform Byteboard, a rare external spin-off.

One of the projects being phased out with the changes is Qaya, a service offering web storefronts for digital creators, launched late last year. Similar to the “link in bio” solutions available today like Linktree or Beacons, Qaya has also integrated with Google Search and Google Shopping. It can also be associated with a YouTube Merch shelf, to promote the creator’s products and services.

The other six canceled projects were yet to launch, but included a financial accounting project for Google Sheets, another shopping-related product, analytics for AR/VR, and, sadly, three climate-related projects. These latter projects had focused on electric car charging cards with routing, carbon accounting for computing and forest carbon measurement.

The changes follow last year’s reorganization of the Area 120 team, which saw the group move to a new “Google Labs” division led by veteran Googler Clay Bavor. The incubator was later bundled alongside other forward-looking Google efforts, such as its virtual and augmented reality developments and its cutting-edge holographic videoconferencing project known as Project Starline. We understand that Google Labs and Starline are not affected at this time.

Pichai announced in July that Google would slow down its hiring and become more focused, but the company said larger layoffs were not planned — it would still hire in engineering, technical and other critical roles. However, as part of its renewed focus on productivity, the company recognizes that it may need to restructure teams, deprecate products or even, at times, eliminate roles.

As for Area 120 team members whose projects have now been halted, Google recruiters will work to help them find new roles, although placement is not a given in such situations.

Google has north of 170,000 full-time employees. Area 120 had over 170 employees at the start of the year, but now has less than 100.

Editor’s Note: The article was updated moments after publication with Google’s comment.

Lance B. Holton