Google’s mediocre 2010

The 'Googleplex' in Palo Alto, courtesy of Wise Money Decisions.


Happy New Year!

Ask yourself a question: name an exciting Google product that launched this year.

That should be easy, right? Think of all the advanced, game-changing products that they’ve launched in previous years: in 2004, Gmail; in 2005-6, Google Docs; in 2007; the mobile operating system Android; in 2009, Wave. Amidst the litany of products Google throws out each year, at least one is usually worth paying attention to.

Now think about 2010. Google has had several major new product launches this year, but not a single one looks like a success.

The launch of Buzz in February was a disaster: Google, in its eagerness to drive take-up of its Twitter rival, made some irresponsible decisions about the service’s default privacy settings. But the problem wasn’t just that Buzz could expose your reading habits and online comments to your abusive ex-husband without telling you.

It’s also that Buzz was a poor, uninspiring me-too product, an attempt to barge out an upstart competitor through the sheer force of Google’s vast user base. ‘Provide a decent copy of an exciting new service and throw it at your millions of existing customers, and most of the dumb lambs will just lap it up:’ that was Microsoft’s strategy for years, and it led them to stagnation and near-crisis. People have, generally, been able to expect better from Google. But not in 2010.

Unlike Buzz, Google TV was at least a Big Idea. Launched in Summer and currently only available in the US, Google TV sits under (or, in some cases, in) your TV set and adds a layer of Googley magic to your TV experience, letting you search online video services and TV listings in a single process to see what you could be watching. The idea of typing in channel and programme names rather than obscure series of numbers, is an attractive one, and a single easy way to search the various online video sites (Americans have a wider choice than us with sites like Amazon Video on Demand) is badly needed. And ‘YouTube on your TV screen’ is something there is surely a market for. In a sense, Google TV is classic Google: take an area where technology is lagging and consumers are confused and wary – the set-top box – add a big dollop of search, and off you go.

Except that Google TV is a rushed mess. The software is, by all accounts, clunky and limited – so much so that Google has reportedly asked its hardware partners, like Sony and Logitech, to scale down their plans to show off Google TV products until the software is upgraded.

What’s more – and potentially much more damagingly – Google TV has been met with horror and suspicion by TV companies, who have blocked access to their online video services from Google TV devices. Users of Google TV can’t currently use their box to watch programmes from Fox, NBC, ABC or CBS, accounting for most of the freely-available online TV in the US. The resistance of the networks is understandable, given Google TV’s potential to take viewers away from the more profitable broadcast networks. And Google may be able to buy access to these channels back. But right now, Google TV looks like an expensive white elephant that offers less functionality than simply buying a $200 second-hand PC and wiring it up to your PC.

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Say hello, Wave goodbye: on the death of a loveable product

Google Wave

RIP: Google Wave, 2009-2010

Telling this story may do my reputation for any sort of knowledge about the tech world no good, but last weekend I bristled at a friend’s laughter at the ‘failure’ of Google Wave. Five years from now, I confidently predicted, Google Wave – and other implementations of the open-source Wave protocol – would be widely used worldwide, including by businesses.

Clearly, I was wrong. Google’s announcement this week that it’s pulling the plug on development of Wave signals the end of one of the briefest and brightest of all the company’s many abandoned projects. Google isn’t pulling the Wave site down, at least not yet. But with no new features and no new marketing, a young product will inevitably wither on the vine, especially after being so publicly abandoned.

You can’t blame Google – Wave really had, as Google’s statement put it, “not seen the user adoption we would have liked.” But why did this powerful new service prove so unpopular?

The common diagnosis is that Wave was simply too powerful, and it did too many different things. As one blog put it, they’d “been using Wave since October and many of us are still confused about what it’s supposed to do.” Users didn’t see it as a replacement for anything in particular, and stayed away.

This view is essentially right, but it understates the problem. Plenty of services succeed without a single killer purpose: lots of people couldn’t see the point of Facebook, given that its individual functions – messaging, photo sharing, and so on – are all done better by standalone services.

The truth is that Wave really only did two different things – but that users saw them as incompatible.

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