Reading about Google X and now Google's attempt to horn in on Amazon Prime, I have to think that this is a result of their culture. It's really great that they're ambitious and open to anything but these efforts have consequences.
The key to success is focus and persistence. In life, you won't achieve anything unless you've defined what you want and then work at it. It's the same in business—perhaps even more so. While an individual can dawdle about in a fog and still get enough to eke out an existence, a business that acted like that would fail much more quickly. The marketplace does not reward complacency or mediocrity, not when there is competition or profit to be had.
I look at Google and see them inexplicably trying to copy Microsoft. Microsoft has two cash cows—Office and Windows—but is desperately paranoid that they're running out of milk. So it does exploratory ventures into console gaming, Internet search, cloud computing, smartphones, tablets, health care, and so on. Similarly, Google has two cash cows—search and advertising—but is easily distracted by sexy, new possibilities. The new shiny for them has included mapping, email, social networking, health care, power metering, bookmarking, photo albums, blogging, browsers, smart phones, video, 3D modeling, telephony, and so much more. Interestingly, both companies have entered these new territories primarily through acquisition.
It's important to note that these two companies are wildly successful and I am a fan and happy consumer of many of the technologies I label as distractions. It's entirely possible that all of these side businesses will turn out to be useful hedges against eventual losses in the core business.
But maybe they'd be more successful if they put all that effort into the core businesses and did their expansion in an aligned fashion. For example, Microsoft has an associated enterprise server business that takes advantage of their Windows operating system work. Google's foray into smartphones provides another vehicle for their advertising business. But even the longest of the long views can't explain space elevators.
It's fashionable to talk about Apple at this point. They are renowned for their focus, cutting products to keep things easy to understand. Further, you can see a progression from the iPod to the iPad and the latter as the fulfilled vision of the former. It takes tremendous dedication to keep plugging away to realize that vision. Along the way, Apple has expanded into adjacent territories and built them into decent side businesses that reinforce the core line. iTunes, the App Store, and iCloud make iPods, iPhones, and Macintoshes more valuable and desirable.
I've heard this business model described as the "stadium" model. You get people into the ballpark and then you provide all the concessions so they don't have to leave to get their needs satisfied. This strikes me as a great way to maintain focus yet still have ample room for growth.