On a rainy evening in late 2021, James Tromans, now the head of Web3 at Google Cloud, sat in his London apartment, a loft conversion within a 19th-century, red-brick building.
Tromans called into a meeting with Google Cloud executives—a 45-minute blitz where he and two others each led 15-minute presentations—and fielded a flurry of questions on his topic: decentralized methods to verify digital identity.
At that moment, the crypto market was still flying high, and Tromans’s presentation was directly related to Web3, which led to a murmur among those in the meeting that they needed to review the blockchain ecosystem in more detail. “Well, hey, like, we can do that,” he remembers telling the executives.
A few months later, the cloud computing giant did “do that,” first unveiling in January 2022 its digital assets team, its Web3 sales unit, and then, in May 2022, its Web3 engineering team, which focuses on product, strategy, and research. The brains behind Google Cloud’s push into blockchain, Tromans was named head of the cloud provider’s Web3 division.
Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, two titans of cloud computing, have similarly dipped their toes into blockchain technology. But since Google Cloud’s first foray into Web3 last year, a flurry of public partnerships and products suggest it may be emerging as an early frontrunner.
And despite the headwinds facing the blockchain industry since the collapse last year of several high-profile companies, Tromans says Google Cloud is committed to the technology. “This isn’t just a marketplace-type play,” he told Fortune. “We’re in it.”
‘A capitalistic adjustment’
Tromans has always found himself “playing around at the edge of new technology,” he told Fortune. Before A.I. was “cool,” he received a doctorate in computational neuroscience from the University of Oxford. And then, years later, shortly before he was an executive at Citibank, he learned about Bitcoin and blockchain. (In fact, he’s still caught up in the bankruptcy proceedings for Mt. Gox, once the largest Bitcoin exchange and which collapsed after losing cryptocurrency now worth billions of dollars.)
Tromans left his role at Citi, where he managed a team, for Google Cloud, where he at first worked under its CTO, partly because he wanted to “have that freedom to explore new technology again, get [his] hands a bit dirty.” And it was that impulse that led him to present on digital identity during the “genesis” meeting that brought forth Google Cloud’s current Web3 team.
The tech giant’s cloud computing arm had previously explored Web3 in 2018 when it added datasets for Bitcoin and then other blockchains into BigQuery, a means for developers to access large databases, but its Web3 strategy accelerated after Tromans took the helm.
Since then, the division has announced a stream of partnerships with prominent crypto firms and blockchains. First, it trumpeted a series of tie-ups with Nansen, a blockchain analytics company, BNB Chain, Coinbase, and slew of other blockchain companies and protocols. It also launched the Blockchain Node Engine, a method for developers to access and use blockchains on Google’s servers. And most recently, it unveiled a startup program for Web3 companies.
“One dynamic I’m seeing in the cloud market as of late is that they’re all trying to out-partner,” Melanie Posey, research director for cloud services at 451 Research, a division of S&P Global Market Intelligence, told Fortune.
Google Cloud’s recent prominence in crypto trade publications implies that its investments in Web3 far outstrip Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure—a surprising reversal of the pecking order among big cloud providers, where Google has long trailed. (In the first quarter of 2023, AWS controlled 32% of the cloud computing market share, Azure had 23%, and Google Cloud ranked third with 10%, according to Synergy Research Group.)
Andrew Boone, a managing director at JMP Securities who follows the tech sector, says that the competition between AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud can’t be easily distilled into a horse race, pointing out that most large corporations now look to use multiple cloud providers.
“I think it was just a capitalistic adjustment,” he said, referring to the cloud providers’ exploration of Web3. “They see an opportunity, and there’s people who need cloud services, and so they formed a verticalized team.”
Microsoft Azure declined to comment when contacted by Fortune. “More customers trust AWS for their blockchain and ledger technology workloads than any other cloud vendor,” an AWS spokesperson said in a statement.
Tromans also declined to wade in on the specifics of a rivalry. “Whilst I do definitely keep abreast of what everyone’s up to, I won’t speak to their strategies,” he told Fortune.
Since the “genesis” meeting in 2021 that launched Google Cloud’s Web3 team, crypto has endured its most fraught period since the early days of Bitcoin.
The market capitalization for all cryptocurrencies, which reached almost $3 trillion in 2021, has plummeted to what’s now approximately $1.2 trillion, according to CoinMarketCap. A series of high-profile crypto firms have collapsed, most notably the now-bankrupt exchange FTX. And in the past few months, the U.S. federal government has filed a suite of civil and criminal charges against crypto heavyweights, including Binance, the largest exchange by far.
Tromans says he has always maintained a healthy skepticism of blockchain, but that he has no plans to abandon the technology—and neither does Google Cloud. “No matter how cynical you try and be, you come back to the fact that there’s something there that’s innovative and that is still exciting people and is driving value,” he told Fortune.
The cloud computing giant has recently grown its Web3 engineering team, plans to further expand the number of blockchains it supports, and hopes to make its Blockchain Node Engine—which currently only supports Ethereum, Solana, and Polygon—generally available. “Where things go in three years from now, it starts to get murky,” Tromans added.
What seems certain, however, is that, as long as he has the opportunity, Tromans will continue to explore the “technological edge,” whether that’s A.I., blockchain, or something else entirely.
“I just always,” he told Fortune, “have found myself there.”