If you’ve known me for long, you know I’m not a fan of those hollow, wide-reaching predictions people love to make this time of year (well, with one noteworthy exception). But trends — now, trends are something I can get behind. Trends are less about pretending to have some manner of magic crystal ball and more about observing genuine patterns and big-picture shifts over time.

And when it comes to Google and the start of 2021, whoo boy, have we got a budding trend worth talking about right now. It’s something that gets at the very heart of Google’s business, its ambitions, and its plans for connecting with us as customers and users of its various products and services.

It’s the slow but significant move toward subscriptions as a key part of the Google experience — the ever-increasing emphasis on getting us, the (mostly) human mammal-people who rely on Android, Gmail, Docs, and the likes to stop thinking of Google as a purely advertising-powered, free-for-the-taking provider and to start thinking of it as a company we at least sometimes pay for the value it gives us.

In a way, it brings to mind what we’ve seen play out with that other big tech player that pivoted not so long ago and established itself as a subscription-driven service provider, particularly in the realm of business — y’know, a little company known as Microsoft — and also what we’ve seen covered exhaustively over on the Apple side of this domain.

For Google, the shift is drawing far less attention but has the potential to be every bit as transformative — maybe even more so. And no matter how you use Google apps and services in your own life, it’s bound to impact you. In fact, it probably already is.

The start of Google’s subscription experiment

Before we get into the present, we need to step back for a moment to set the stage for what we’re seeing now and what we’re likely to see more of in the months ahead. After all, Google may have been built as an advertising company at the start — with free services supported by a profile-driven, personalized ad network — but it’s actually been making some money by selling subscriptions to its services for quite a while now.

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