Software and hardware vendors are held to a ridiculously high standard – many times, the press will be breathing down their necks about a “lack of innovation” or some similarly meaningless term when their current product line is still doing remarkably well and changing – even if subtly – the markets that they occupy. A good example is the absolutely exhausting “Apple can’t innovate without Steve Jobs” trope that has been beaten like a drum by unimaginative writers since 2011, even as Apple has unveiled, well, innovations like AirDrop for iOS, 64-bit mobile processors, and high-resolution MacBooks. Likewise, Nintendo is the subject of endless ire for the struggling Wii U (which has sold 4 million units – nothing to set the world on fire, but hardly a $900 million writedown), even as the original Wii crossed 100 million in lifetime sales, the 3DS line became the best dedicated gaming device, and the company’s StreetPass/Miiverse system proved that it count use “the Internet” is ways that no one else could.
What’s weird about the “innovation” obsession is how unevenly it is applied. For example: when was the last time that someone really scolded Google for a “lack of innovation”?
Part of the reason that Google has been spared the knife is that is has too many products. Nice also-rans like Google Keep, throwaways like Google Currents, and core products like Search and Gmail – combined, this constantly shifting portfolio serves as a shield against anyone who could swipe in and say “Google isn’t innovating” (it also helps that the company’s founders are still involved – tho it would be fun to start a “Google can’t innovate without Eric Schmidt” argument).
But having a lot of products doesn’t mean Google is innovating. It just means that it deflect press attention to struggling initiatives, unlike Apple or Nintendo, both of which support only a few core products at a time (and as such, if one does well or fails, it gets an inordinate amount of attention). What has Google done since, say, 2005, when it unveiled Google Maps?
- Google Chrome – a Webkit browser, beaten to the punch (on desktop) by 5 years by Safari. It performs better than Safari in many instances, but it’s a catch-up tool. This can be seen in how Chrome didn’t even come to mobile until 2012 and wasn’t the default browser on stock Android until the first Nexus 7 was released, while Safari shipped with the iPhone from day one.
- Android – this looks impressive on the surface (and I enjoy using it – it was the impetus for starting this blog), but it was an acquisition that succeeded because of its free, open source roots and how it was updated in response to the first two iPhones. Google’s creation of a propriety Google+/Hangouts portal could take it in an odd direction.
- Google Fiber – a niche Internet service project in the U.S. that would be prohibitively expensive to build nationwide and is already being outflanked by competitors like AT&T.
- Google Drive/Docs – the definition of an also-ran, in that it imitated Dropbox and Office without adding much new.
- Google+ – a confusing response to Facebook that is super-useful in some workflows (photo backup) and utterly annoying (no functionality if not signed-in, terrible connection to real-life) in others. It’s essentially a mildly interesting blog platform that hasn’t caught public interest, since users have much better alternatives like Tumblr.
- Google Play – a belated response to the App Store. Play Music All Access is Spotify (est’d. 2008) in a different wrapper.
- YouTube – an acquisition that has been turned into a spam machine via its poor comments system, its poorly imagined channel setup and the prospect of becoming yet another me-too music subscription service.
- Google Glass – this is Segway 2.0 – a perfect match for insular geeks who pay for flying cars in bitcoin, but unlikely to become a mass-market success. The amount of attention Glass has gotten is a testament to the press’s fascination with “innovation” at the expense of the subtle iteration that often constitutes real change.
Maybe put it this way: what Web products do most people use from Google? Search, Gmail, and Maps. And all of those are ancient. They’ve been tweaked, but not always for the better – Gmail is increasingly a mess of separated inboxes and questionable compatibility with IMAP. Maps is primed for more advertising. These changes make me think that Google is spinning its wheels, a bit afraid of just blowing up something old and letting something new cannibalize it.