I love this line from William Gibson:
The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed
To me, it is a reminder that the things we imagine the future to be are already taking shape in the labs and garages around the world. It’s also a good reminder that we’re creating our future – that it is up to us – and that our work is what gives the future its trajectory and shape.
Then there is Google. Their incredible position reflects their inspired work, but the next steps seem so obvious and painfully lacking. Their future feels so clear, but the present is terribly clunky.
I got a voice mail using Google Voice. A transcript and link was sent to my e-mail. I click on the link and listen to the message. So far, great. Now I want to save the message, but there are no links. I click the “Google Voice” logo, but no dice – not even the logo is linked. The message mentioned a meeting, so I want to add the meeting to my calendar. No link for that either, of course. The page doesn’t even have the standard Google header bar. Failure to integrate. Failure to provide basic navigation. Great functionality hidden in a tangle of stand-alone services that make it hard for users.
The internet giant has everything going for it – the important things at least – but regularly delivers a disappointing user experience. They have sufficient users, capital, and talent to enter and dominate just about any market they want, but many projects fail because of the easy stuff. Economies of scale in every corner of the business should give Google a powerful advantage as they enter and grow into new markets, but most times Google trips.
Their typical process appears from the outside to follow a pattern like:
- Somebody likes a “20% time” project
- Project enters “Google Labs”
- APIs launch in Google Code and Google Apps
- Failure to integrate among related services
- New services must survive alone or they are abandoned
This last piece is important. Just because you build it doesn’t mean people will come. Integration with existing services is probably the best way to introduce new services to existing users and maximize value to consumers.
Integration and navigation among Google services is terrible. I hope this will not be mirrored in Chrome OS and Google TV – these are 2 new business lines that will depend critically on good user experiences.
The idea of Google Labs is great on it’s surface: give new services a place to be refined while gaining traction and validation. But don’t sacrifice the vision of leadership. Performance as individual lab experiments ignores the value these services gain when they are integrated. Google Wave should have been integrated with Docs and Gmail as early as possible; instead it was not integrated and cancelled. Also, dropping the real estate layer from Maps instead of integrating with real estate ad sales … so disappointing.
I hope that lack of integration is not an intentional strategy to avoid becoming evil monopolists. I know the culture of resentment for what Microsoft did in the operating system and browser markets has left Google feeling careful not to unfairly exploit their position of power. Actually, I respect them a lot for that. But integrating among services is not evil; instead, it is exactly what you hope for when you offer an API. Every Google service should have an incentive to integrate other Google services. They should also be encouraged to integrate non-Google services. If Buzz played friendlier with Twitter, I think it’s adoption would have been a couple orders of magnitude better, and instead of Twitter growing essentially alone, there could have been a diversity of integrated messaging services. Maybe next time…
There is another problem when Google fails to integrate across services: incentives. Because newer projects do not add value to existing services, they are perceived as expensive speculation. Existing business lines only want to subsidize new business lines if they will add value. Services in Google Labs that work in isolation or require opt-in for integration add little value to existing services. I attribute many of the failed launches to this problem.
The future is clear. Google can become a beautifully integrated suite of services that satisfy all the major demands of modern information-age consumers, including business customers and developers. It can avoid being evil by opening as many APIs as possible to promote competition – enabling other companies to integrate all the services consumers are growing to expect.
But it’s not there yet. Time to get back on track.