Sunday 30 December 2012

Uneasy Aquisitions and Polluted Ecosystems: The Google Conundrum

Regular listeners to the Full Circle Magazine podcast will know that I have spent a great deal of time pondering the value of "ecosystems" in the world of technology. What is meant by this term in context, much like its ecological equivalent, is the environment produced when a company's products are used alongside each other. In the world of technology, where services are interlinked and mutually reinforcing it also has a lot to do with "user experience", the sensation encountered when using a whole suite of products together. Look and feel therefore has an increasing impact on digital ecosystems as they grow, with an ideal outcome being that a user is able to work with multiple products from a single source together almost entirely seamlessly, finding little difference between them in terms of interface design and sensation, while having as many of their digital needs taken care of as the provider is able to manage.

An avid user of many of Google's products, including the Android smartphone operating system, I find its services tend to compare favourably with the products of most of its competitors. Much of this is due to the variety and consistent quality of what is on offer, whether it be the accurate satellite navigation provided by Google Maps, the office suite-cum-cloud storage system of Google Drive or the timely search-linked information grabber that is Google Now. While other giants such as Apple or Microsoft have certainly made brave efforts at challenging its supremacy, Google, utilising its powerful advertising-based business model alongside the sheer weight of its market momentum, seems to be uniquely able to consistently deliver such high-quality services without charge.

(Click to enlarge) Source: App Annie
(Click to enlarge) Source: App Annie
Obviously, Google's overriding goal in this is to account for every need a user could possibly think of (as well as many they probably won't), allowing them to largely corner the market in online advertising. From even a quick glance at the product ecosystem produced by this model however, it clear that this approach nevertheless faces significant drawbacks. Perhaps the most obvious of these is found in the Google Play Store, formerly known as the Android Marketplace, which offers a comparable service on Android to the App Store for Apple's iOS. Although Google offers a much less restrictive set of guidelines for developers hoping to sell their software, among a number of other factors the omnipresence of the internet giant's own free services has led to the creation of a smaller and much less lucrative market. Developers are certainly still able to earn a tidy sum from their handiwork, though a much larger proportion of revenue is drawn from advertising than on iOS equivalents, with Apple's store continuing to maintain a clear lead in direct sales. Recent data indicates that Google is rapidly closing this gap however, and it is not likely to be long before the two become much more evenly matched.

Far more worrying, though, is the confusing mass of products produced as an outcome of Google's efforts to dominate the digital world on all sides by land, sea and air. Apple, a design and device-based company at heart, has maintained its well-defended niche selling devices at a premium that offer access to a largely homogeneous set of services. Almost without exception, Apple's products offer the same user experience and, though expensive and now a little dated in appearance, it is smooth, well-maintained and neatly designed. The sensation of Apple's different services is broadly the same, allowing them each to feel like small components of a larger system. While Google's products make an effort in this direction, they still have a long way to go before they reach the same level of coordination.

To start with, the digital behemoth has a tendency for over-elaboration, adding unnecessary functionality to otherwise simple services and creating products that slip by largely ignored even within the same ecosystem. Many users of Google+ will no doubt remember the mysterious YouTube button that appeared on the site for a few weeks to offer users the dubious value of being able to watch videos in a tiny window while browsing the site. On the other hand, it is unlikely that any but the enthusiastic few will recall Google Scribe, the internet autocorrect engine that now, following the extinction of Google Labs, exists as little more than an amusing third-party plugin for the Chrome browser. Thirsty for innovation of any sort, Google hastily releases arbitrary new features in a desperate attempt to keep ahead of its competition, such as Google+'s "Party Mode" which allows event attendees to manually upload images while an event is taking place (doing little to commend the sorts of "parties" at which guests might actually be likely to do this). This is a mistaken policy, serving only to conceal genuinely useful features that the services have, such as for example the ability to invite people to events who are not themselves actually members of Google+. Such products often also disappear without warning when found to be unpopular, leaving people clueless as to how services are really designed to be used together. More detailed consideration should be put into future product releases as a priority, as hasty withdrawals leave a very poor impression among consumers.

An uncertain start is at hand for Google's Schemer
Acquisitions add a further dimension to the problem. Keen to avoid letting opportunities slip away, Google enthusiastically acquires small (and some large) services that show sufficient promise. Working with products, however clever, that were not originally designed to fit within any particular ecosystem raises significant problems. Ideally, they should be retrofitted to allow them to thrive in their own niches within Google's diverse portfolio. This is not easily done, as such products often have an existing user base resistant to large-scale change - losing these users would raise the question as to why the company did not simply set up a competing service in the first place. The more popular a service becomes, the more likely it is to acquire users other than the kinds of enthusiastic early-adopters who readily embrace change for its own sake. As a service becomes more firmly entrenched, so does its look and feel: YouTube is a key example of this, with even high-profile users reacting fairly unenthusiastically to the latest in a long series of interface changes designed to tie it in more closely with the rest of Google-land. The more companies a giant such as Google acquires, the more fractured its ecosystem becomes, threatening its stability in a manner akin to a house of cards.

Google's eagerness to find a place for every possible audience has also pushed it into competition on many fronts with countless other titans. Several endeavours, some quite poorly thought out, have caused the company to become an nuisance, if not an outright threat, to major players on the internet scene. Many will remember Buzz, the company's ill-fated Twitter-esque microblogging service which was eventually abandoned after being made redundant by the more robust Google+ (itself very close to Facebook). Some will no doubt also recall the disastrous Google Wave, which sought to revolutionise the world of email, but which achieved precious little with regard to uptake, leading to its sad withdrawal with little fanfare. For its efforts, Google has found itself with few friends among its peers. Facebook, for example, refused to play ball when asked to make friend details available to Android's "Contacts", and Apple's Steve Jobs famously declared "thermonuclear war" on the competing mobile operating system as the rivalry between the two companies caused Eric Schmidt, then Google's CEO, to resign from Apple's board of directors.

The ill-fated Wave: quickly killed off
Optimistically, there are still some surprises to be had from the giant. Google+ Communities, a recent addition to the company's social network, is hardly a revolution, offering capabilities comparable to Facebook Groups which had been sadly absent from the site previously. While it is far too early to measure the overall impact of the new feature, in my experience at least it has been a tremendous hit, almost tripling the number of quality interactions encountered. Google Drive, released earlier this year, has also been a tremendous time-saver, offering ample space to store files while granting access to a rudimentary but surprisingly powerful online office suite. Sceptical about the service at first (and disappointed that there is still no desktop client available for Linux!), I now find it more than sufficient for all but the most elaborate projects, with its sophisticated collaborative capabilities making sharing and editing much easier than any alternatives I have experienced to date. Google's creative engine, it seems, is still as lively as ever and more than able to produce a few hits under its own steam.

Ultimately, it seems Google is simply producing more products than it is able to keep track of. Many of these also have very similar roles, leaving users confused as to which they should use in each circumstance. Schemer for example is a recent innovation that allows people to create and share to-do lists. This places it in conflict with Google Calendarwhich offers the ability to create and share events by email along with its own more limited "Tasks" functionality. While Schemer is supposedly aimed more at life goals and "things to do before you die", this is not immediately obvious and likely to confuse first-time users. The parallel between the two also exposes omissions: where are shopping lists supposed to be stored, for instance (frustrated by this, I actually now use a simple text document for this purpose)? Google Currentsa service for downloading and viewing magazines, is another particularly glaring example, exhibiting overlap with both RSS manager Google Reader and Google Play Magazinesand equipped with an icon of a startlingly dissimilar design from those of other flagship products. Such clashes of functionality breed user uncertainty: ideally, should someone use Google Reader or Google Currents for their subscriptions? Where are photographs and images supposed to be stored - within Picasa and Google+ Photos or Google Drive? Such uncertainty is toxic to a healthy ecosystem, which thrives on unity and smoothness, giving the impression that the software developers had little idea themselves of how their services should be properly used. The best explanation seems to be that Google, unable to decide whether it wants its products to be seen as individual services or as a true singular "suite", is striving instead to have it both ways. This is a brave choice, though it is uncertain as to whether it will pay off in the long-run.

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