Monday, May 20, 2013

Creating Google Island

With Google I/O going on last week, I’ve come back to thoughts about the role this company plays in my online activity. So far, I’ve been trying to replace Messages with the newly released Hangouts and been pretty pleased. It’s smarter about notifications across devices and (thank goodness) it seems more reliable. How much of my computing and online activity do I want to cede to Google, though?

+Rob Boone writes over at SSimpli about his affinity for Google, but his growing discomfort with their web dominance. In particular, he sees the entry of Google into markets well-served by other companies and services that specialize as an undesirable trend. Why use Google Keep instead of Evernote, for example? Boone hones in on music services, cloud file access and social networking, as well.
These things are the identity of their respective companies. It’s what they do. That means something. I will give you my money, Rdio, because you do music, and only music. Dropbox, you do files better than anyone around; therefore, I am a loyal customer. Even Facebook, which, historically, I loathe, retains its place in my habits precisely because social is all they do.
Though Rdio much better than Spotify in terms of sharing and UI, I still can’t get behind the subscription streaming music service due to the disturbingly low amount they give back to the content creators. As for Facebook, well, I’ve avoided that for years and see no reason to change my stance now. Most people I know who are on Facebook still complain about it like devotion to it is a necessary evil. Sure, it’s a burden to check and most of the posts don’t interest you, but if all your friends are there, you are obligated to be, as well.


I get Boone’s point. There are some areas that Google simply does better than anyone else. Webmail and search, for instance. Obviously given where you are reading this, I am partial to Blogger, having tried Tumblr, Wordpress and others and not found the same balance of simplicity and complexity that Blogger offers. I even like the much-maligned Google+ for its wonderful privacy segmentation. For those markets where existing services reign, and do so by placing emphasis on that market and what they can bring to customers in that market, though, I would be wary of Google entering the mix.

It reminds me of the Blockbuster Movies model. I lived in several places where Blockbuster competed with smaller, independent video rental stores. While those stores remained, Blockbuster regularly sent coupons that made their rentals cheaper then their competition’s. However, once the competing independent stores went out of business, as they almost inevitably did, the coupons dried up. The question is, how many markets will Google strive hard to dominate and then lose interest in providing the additional benefit that drove the others away from competitors in the first place?

Or, perhaps a more relevant analogy

I used to use Newsgator for my RSS needs. The web interface wasn’t bad for checking feeds while I was on lunch break at work. More importantly, it synchronized well with NetNewsWire, which I used on my Mac at home. Google Reader launched, and at first it seemed laughably simple and really not much competition. As they did with Gmail, though, Google fairly rapidly improved the service in a manner that allowed them to leapfrog the competition. Even though I typically prefer desktop clients to web services, I soon became sucked in by the cleanness of the Google Reader design and the expanding feature set, and switched from NewsGator. It was nice having the same interface anywhere I was, and in that respect, the web service had an advantage. Then came along clients like Reeder, the beautiful OSX and iOS front-end to Google’s RSS synchronization. I was, and still am, hooked on that experience across my devices. Despite the rumors, I really didn’t think Google would shut the Reader service down. Why would they squander the good will of their die hard users for a service that they would have no problems maintaining (financially or technically)? As we all now know, I was woefully naive about Google’s intentions. They never found a way to capitalize on the service they built, and they didn’t see a need to keep up the half-hearted attempts at trying.1

One would think there is always the option of going back to Newsgator. Unfortunately, like the independent video stores, Newsgator is no longer around (at least not in its original form). Bloglines isn’t what it used to be, either. Google ate their lunch, as well.2

The lesson here is

Don’t ditch a company that is committed to a certain market segment to follow Google’s latest passing fancy. Your favorite provider of cloud document storage, streaming music or even social media could end up being trampled underneath the mighty feet of the search giant. In the case that you then find yourself dependent on Google for a particular service, they could lose interest and the availability of the service may disappear altogether. Or perhaps in a worse case, the service could be massive enough to actually contribute to Google’s overall web/world dominance. If that happens, someday in the distant future, we could all find ourselves on Google Island, naked and unashamed.

  1. Google has provided a decent option of preserving your data before the service is discontinued through Google Takeout. Google is probably better at gracefully shutting down services than anyone else at this point (they’ve certainly had enough practice). ↩
  2. Is anyone else getting panicky about the Google Reader shutdown? I haven’t found a suitable service to switch to yet. Thinking about trying Feedbin. ↩

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