Years ago, the high-tech company that drove me closest to the edge of madness was Microsoft. That firm treated its customers as if they were lucky to have computers. It wrote operating systems that were so fragile they became the subject of late-night comedy routines. The company seems to be oblivious to the working habits of real people.
When Microsoft introduced the now-famous “ribbon” interface to its Office products in the 2007 version, it didn’t provide a means for users to switch back to the old menu-driven interface, which caused temporary chaos in offices throughout the land. Functions that had been positioned at predictable spots on menus for many years suddenly moved off to God-knew-where, and Microsoft was unapologetic about it. And speaking of that old menu structure, its quirkiness was explained to me this way: It was designed for giving demos, not for productivity right out of the box.
But for sheer frustration, I think Google tops Microsoft. Just a few days ago, Google announced that it was summarily shutting down Google Reader. Google Reader is a content aggregator, which means it can list dozens or even hundreds of websites for easy scanning. It emerged in 2005 from the prolific Google Labs, which gave birth to dozens of other things before it, too, was shut down.
This might not seem like a big deal, except that Google Reader is used as the base for other products that aggregate content. Google contends that Reader is departing due to declining usage, but just about everybody in the industry doubts that. The announcement was sudden and unanticipated.
Looking back, Google has not only killed off the Lab and many products it had in beta, it has also pulled the plug on many applications it got in acquisitions. The list of victims is about 39 products long and counting: Aardvark, Desktop, Notebook, Buzz, Friend Connect, Gears, Wave and PowerMeter, among many others. Granted, most of them had user bases that wouldn’t fill a phone booth, but Reader has tens of millions. As for why it’s being shut down, Google CEO Larry Page would say only that Google was putting “more wood behind fewer arrows.”
From a sheer business perspective, I don’t fault Google for sowing a hundred seeds and then weeding out the weaklings, especially as all the products are free, financed by history’s biggest cash cow, Google Search.
But Google isn’t a corner specialty shop trying a new line of chocolates. It’s one of the biggest technology companies to ever exist, and when it pushes a big application like Reader onto the market and then withdraws it, that hurts. Already, millions are scrambling to find substitutes for Reader, but many of those same substitutes use Reader’s code as their base, and they’re not going to work anymore, either.
The hard truth is that, aside from a few applications like Web search and perhaps Gmail, everything Google does is experimental and likely to be yanked with little notice and no concern for its absence.
The big problem I see with this approach is that many businesses have come to rely on Google products and are severely hurt when those products are withdrawn or changed.
Reader isn’t the half of it. Microbusinesses in particular rely on Google Calendar, Chrome, Docs (now “Drive”), Android and Gmail. Any one of them could be summarily executed if they don’t seem to offer enough of a future—in Larry Page’s words, not “enough wood behind it.” Then the business folk who use them will have to scurry hither and yon to recover and find equivalents.
Business thrives on many things, not the least of which is some amount of consistency. Businesses stay afloat in a constant storm of uncertainty, and it’s nice to know that a few things can be relied upon to be available and to work properly.
Google’s products might or might not fall into this category. Nobody really knows. Google products are admittedly free, and they’re reasonably dependable considering the price. Google Calendar is sometimes unavailable, and Google Docs was rather abruptly converted to Google Drive. Android appears to be better than ever, and is currently commanding around 70 percent of the smartphone market.
However, the specter of losing a Google product because it didn’t have enough wood has to give businesses pause, especially when there are equally free competitive products that aren’t cloud-based and are even more reliable because they run locally. You sacrifice portability, but you gain more control. Other users might be content with being experimental animals in Google’s ongoing tinkering, but you should consider the real cost before signing up to make your enterprise a guinea pig for Google.•
Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.