When Will Google Make Another Breakthrough Product?

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.

2 responses

  1. You do make some good points on google glass and fiber here but some of the other products seem to be unfairly judged.

    Youtube may have a comment system that resembles the vocabulary of a 12 year old but the G+ integration has made it much better. And the service as a whole has a tremendous amount of valuable content. Its right up there with search, gmail and maps. Name one other video service that matches its site traffic? I can see google trying to grow this into a media entertainment service like netflix.

    Chrome may have arrived late to the android party but it currently leads in usage in desktop. Its webstore and ease of use sets it apart from safari and IE. Chrome on android was a terrible app when it first came out for older devices but has gotten steadily better. And usage of chrome on android cannot be blamed on google as the skinned versions of android do not ship with chrome but with the AOSP browser.

    Google Play is not a belated response to the App store. The android market predated the app store. The app store would not even exist today had google not shown that developing apps natively on the platform was the way to go. The original iphone had plans to run all apps on HTML 5 on the safari web browser. However, in terms of content the App store still leads and Google can do a lot more here.

    Google drive integrates the best of both dropbox and office. Office has not had collaboration features until the 2013 feature and its still not real time (unless you talk of the web version). Google was first to introduce this after the acqusition of Writely. In addition, not everyone wants to plunk down 99 dollars a year or 299 for the full version of 2013 when drive does most of it pretty well for the great price of 0 dollars. Doesn’t that count for innovating?

    1. You make some really good points – I’m happy to have a really well thought-out comment on this blog.

      G+ could make the YouTube comment system better – I wrote a post to this effect. But it hasn’t done so yet, and my general concern is that YouTube could become not much more than a backend for other services like Facebook and Twitter. If Twitter hosted its own video content, I think YouTube would be in trouble. The channel system hasn’t caught on yet, and the notion that subscription music may be coming to YouTube after Google already implemented something similar with Google Play Music is concerning. I think YouTube is still some distance from challenging Netflix as a content service.

      Google probably should provide Chrome for Android to OEMs rather than requiring them to license it/build their own browser. Chrome for Android is a great browser with unique features such as opening links in other apps, but its essential technology is still a variation on WebKit.

      The original Android market launched a few months after the App Store in 2008. I don’t think that’s an important distinction – the importance is more that it took Google til 2012 to get the store branded correctly as “Google Play,” as something that was conceptually on the same level as the App Store in terms of being a carefully curated entertainment portal.

      I totally agree that Drive is a preferable alternative to MS Office. But it feels like a best-of compilation: office software + desktop client for cloud storage, both of which were pioneered years before. Maybe the pricing model is enough to justify the “innovation” tag, but it feels like an alternative to the status quo rather than a real trailblazer (which Gmail actually was in comparison to other webmail/desktop clients in 2004). That said, I use Drive every day, and I feel that it is under-utilized by the public.

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