As noted pretty much everywhere last week, Google introduced new stuff at Google I/O. They also had a keynote by Larry Page, and one of the things he said that was picked up widely was:
Every story I read about Google is “us versus some other company” or some stupid thing, and I just don’t find that very interesting. We should be building great things that don’t exist. Being negative isn’t how we make progress. Most important things are not zero sum, there is a lot of opportunity out there.
Many sites took this as a statement showing how Google doesn’t want to ‘go thermonuclear’ a la Apple. But others, such as DaringFireball’s John Gruber, called BS on that and instead noted that, “They want everything; their ambition is boundless.”
And more importantly, he notes that THIS IS A GOOD THING! Huge ambitions lead to huge innovations – or paranoia and monopolistic encroachment, as anyone who messed with Microsoft in the 90s can attest. Google is a company uniquely positioned to help push some amazing new horizons by seeing the world in which it has the responsibility to deliver the best solutions in a way that makes everything else seem outdated.
But it has been a long time since THAT has happened. I will not jump on any sort of ‘Google doesn’t innovate’ bandwagon, but I will say that the majority of their efforts in recent years have either been half-baked or me-too products, half of which have been killed off or are languishing on life support.
To see why Google works best in ‘The Land of OR’, look to its history:
- When Google first came around, most people were happily using Yahoo as a ‘portal’ and search engine. Some – like me – preferred AltaVista as a get-in/get-out search engine. But Google offered an engine that was optimized to minimize your time on the site — and it worked. Results came FAST, and were really good, and you were off and running. Very quickly everything else became superfluous.
- Then there is Google Maps. Does anyone remember MapQuest? The reigning king of directions and mapping fell hard & fast when Google decided that ‘search’ should include WHERE you are searching for stuff! And when it came to mobile devices, Google quickly had a solution for Apple and for Android – one good enough that Apple has been reeling trying to come up with their own!
- Email was already ubiquitous when GMail launched in summer of 2004; heck, I had been sending messages for 20 years already! But compared to other webmail solutions – Hotmail (1996), Yahoo (1997), and .Mac (2000) – GMail was just in a whole different league, with threaded discussions and massive storage. It STILL is the best webmail solution, despite strides from Microsoft on Hotmail/Outlook recently.
- RSS was not a new technology when Google Reader launched … but can you recall your solution before Reader? I know I can’t. It was a web app that defined the technology and wiped out the competition to the point that many are struggling (including the Gear Diary editors) as Google prepares to shut down Reader this summer.
- Google showed they could channel Microsoft as they launched Chrome, the lightweight fast web browser that has gained enormous popularity – and gives Google unprecedented views of everything people are doing. But once again we trade privacy and security for those oh-so-good freebies.
In other areas, Google has either never made a product or has made a sad failure and later bought themselves a spot at the table:
- YouTube (remember Google Videos?)
- Picasa … which Google is actually ruining little by little.
But look to some of the recent efforts to see where they are falling short:
- Buzz, Wave, etc.
- Shopping / Wallet / etc – did you know when I bought FL Studio ($20) I wanted to use my remaining gift card balance before charging to credit card … but it wouldn’t let me, asking for a single source. Welcome to the 90s.
- Google Books – yeah, we do books too! Worst in class.
- Google Music – see Google books. In first non-beta year under-performed Google’s estimates by ~20x!
- Google Video / TV / Magazines – OK, Mike we get it … it is ALL inferior to everyone else!
- Google + – like pretty much everything else this is a derivative ‘me too’ service launched when something else had the market. But unlike most, by the time G+ launched (after Buzz failed), Facebook and Twitter had hundreds of millions of entrenched users. There was simply no reason for it to exist. So it failed badly. But Google saw it as integral to success, so it wasn’t allowed to fail. This simply meant an attitude of “if you won’t take it willingly, we’ll stuff it down your throat”. As a result everything is now attached to Google +. My wife wanted to share Picasa photos … but alas, that has been destroyed to the point that it is a G+ conduit. They have forced all users of Google products to have an account, so they can count those numbers – and signing on to a Google property connected to G+ (like YouTube) counts you as an ‘active user’ … so G+ can look busy in spite of still being useless and superfluous. Look at most G+ sites, and it is full of a random assortment of reblogs, most of which people probably don’t even know are there.
Google never really knew what to do with Chat, so we got Talk, Voice, Chat, and so on. They just collapsed it a bit by introducing ‘Hangouts’, but there are still too many kludgy products.
And now we get new stuff (aside from Hangouts):
- Google Play Music All Access – awful name for what is basically a Spotify/Rdio clone, albeit an inferior one. New music launched today, which I could immediately find on Spotify, Rdio and Slacker – but not Google. Which is typical.
- Google Play Games – Open Feint for Android with Google data collection pretty much sums this up. Missing stuff, but otherwise inoffensive.
These are not bold, they are not important, they are … weak. Of course Android-fanatics will defend it all, saying that is just how Google works – releasing things and maturing them over time. Sort of like how Android really sucked for a while and is now pretty solid … except that it is still just as fragmented as ever, but nobody notices since everyone just buys Samsung phones. And let’s not forget Google Music, which hasn’t changed at all, and is still just abysmally awful. Same for books, TV, video and so on.
And one of the biggest issues I have is that it appears Google is doing this to appease the ‘don’t be evil’ crew. I have two problems with that: Don’t be evil doesn’t mean ‘don’t compete’, and in case you hadn’t noticed, Google already is one of the most evil companies around.
With most products over the last 5 years Google has simply thrown out an inferior product and hoped that their rabid fans would elevate it to most popular. Some work and others don’t, and with the cheap and ever-improving Android juggernaut, it is a great vehicle to push crapware. But when was the last time Google ASTOUNDED us like they did with GMail, Maps, and so on? I can’t really remember.
I point to how Reader is being killed off as an example of Google being evil; if Google sees something that isn’t going to net them advertising money, they kill it off. Reader costs essentially nothing to run – certainly it is less of a drain than Music/Books/etc, and it is very popular, but it fails to feed enough data back.
And as I have demonstrated repeatedly, YOUR data is key to the success of Google. And if you are thinking ‘not me’, then … you are cute. And naive. And wrong. You are a data source, and the more Google can get installed on your systems, the more data they can collect … and sell. It has gotten to the point where last year one analyst pointedly said, ‘Google is no longer primarily a technology company’, something I had said even earlier last year.
The music industry has repeatedly called Google the ‘#1 advocate and enabler of piracy’. I hadn’t ever done much with that, but last week there was an article about how the new Daft Punk album had leaked out due to the Apple stream and was widely available for pirates. I had switched my default search engine (in Safari, no less) to Bing, and did a search for ‘daft punk random access memories mp3 download’, and came up with Amazon, iTunes, and CD Baby as the highest ranked sites, with all legal sources on the first page.
The same search terms in Google put a torrent site above Amazon, and the rest of page one was all illegal sources; so much for not being evil.
What do you think Google should do to get back to the point of being an innovative technology company?