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The Plain View

Silicon Valley loves crazy. VCs will tell you that the crazy ideas are the ones that turn their investments into billions. Steve Jobs recited a prose-poem about how they push the world forward. And Alphabet—whose founders were told that it was crazy to capture all of the web to tackle the already-solved problem of search—has a whole division, dubbed X, devoted to nurturing crazy ideas. They call it their Moonshot Factory, but the original Apollo moonshot was fanatical about avoiding failure. Better to call this one a crazy factory.

Even with that mission, one project was so out there that they called it Loon. It involved circling the globe with packs of balloons that would beam internet access to underserved earthlings. Launched in 2013, it confounded skeptics by soaring toward viability. Loon’s technology kept improving, with balloons that stayed aloft longer and sent bits straight to cell phones. In 2018, Loon “graduated” from X and became a division of its own, known as one of Alphabet’s Other Bets. It got its own CEO and, eventually, some outside funding to augment the many millions of dollars the company had already spent. (Though it won’t say how many millions.) It helped send data to Peruvians after an earthquake and to Puerto Ricans post-hurricane. Last year, in a pilot project in Kenya, the division successfully delivered bandwidth to customers. Loon refused to give Alphabet a reason to kill it.

Until now. Tonight, Alphabet is announcing that it is grounding Loon. Astro Teller, who heads X and was also the chair of the Loon board, recommended that Alphabet no longer fund it, effectively letting the air out of the division’s balloon. “No one wanted to pick up the mantle,” he says.

The interesting thing is how far Loon got before Alphabet pulled the plug. When Teller first heard the idea, he says, he gave it about a 1 or 2 percent chance of succeeding. By the time of its launch in 2013—which I traveled to New Zealand to attend, following some of its first internet-bearing balloons—it had gotten to around 10 percent. By the 2018 graduation, Teller thought it was 50–50.