Google Needs To Commit and Finish Something

Google has a problem. As outlined in a Forbes article (which also discusses Apple and Dell), Google has started a tremendous number of things. The problem I see with almost all of them is that Google never does much past their launch. It starts stuff, but rarely finishes them. Their only real follow-through has been on a small number of products or ideas.

Lots of Beginnings…

Consider Google’s various attempts to take on services like Facebook and Twitter. Google Wave came and went. Google+ started out promising, but appears to have dwindled. It is a common tale: Google teases at something that will rock the established players, eventually puts out a beta, lots of people get excited, but Google’s interest seems to waver when it isn’t an instant success.

Yes, Google has had some successes. Search, ad placement, Google Maps, Google Earth and GMail are all cornerstones of our online experience. Android has done quite well, although it has made no real inroads in tablets (except the Fire, which isn’t as Android as Google would like, given it’s walled-garden app store). Android has also failed to bring any real revenue into Google, and while Google may be trying to rectify that by building their own hardware, they run the risk of pushing aside their current partners if they are “too successful”.

Google’s famed “20% on personal projects” has been interesting, but given the number of very smart people and the time spent, Google has very little to show for it. Yes, several services got launched, but only as betas. There has been very little follow-through.

I understand the idea of throwing lots of darts at a target to see which ones stick. But Google has launched so many darts it isn’t funny. Having two or things on the go, or even a half-dozen, is one thing, even for a company as big a Google. But to bring out one after another, only to kill it off months or years later points to a larger problem. In some ways, they are like a puppy with a sock: they sure are enthusiastic, but the moment a new toy comes into view, the sock  is no longer that interesting.

…But Good Things Take Time

Google has shown, through search and ads, that they can commit to something long-term. You would think that those two successes would have demonstrated that a product’s success takes time, often measured in years. But there seems to be this obsession that a new service have instant success. The problem is that none of the cornerstone services we have come to depend on had “instant success”. Facebook has been a work in progress for 8 years. Twitter has been at it for 6 years now. YouTube has taken 7 years to get to where it is now. None of these services started with any guarantees, some (like Facebook) faced substantial competition in their early years, and it took time for all of them to prove their value and usefulness.

Beyond those, Google needs to look no further than Android to understand how something takes time to build. Android was not an overnight success. When it first launched, the early results weren’t encouraging. The Motorola Droid barely made a scratch in the iPhone, Symbian or Blackberry numbers. Some questioned the wisdom of “yet another smartphone”. But Android has been building its share steadily over a period of 4 years, to the point where it is the biggest player in smartphones. This did not happen overnight. It took time and perseverance. It meant not just starting, but following-through.

If Google expects to continue to succeed, at some point it needs to stop getting distracted by their latest shiny toy, and put some effort and patience into the work they are doing. Building something new is exciting. Launching a new product with lots of promise is a thrilling experience. But success comes with grinding it out and working the plan, adapting where necessary, but not simply abandoning the idea when it isn’t a instant success.

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2 thoughts on “Google Needs To Commit and Finish Something

  1. I agree that this is a huge problem for Google, however I do enjoy that Google employees are able to work on projects they enjoy.

    This allows for projects like WebRTC and others. I do like how Google employees set out to tackle large projects that people have asked them selves why hasn’t anyone done it yet (Native Client is another example).

    As long as Google does not go public and thus have to answer to a board of directors and justify every decision based on profit, Google can continue to start projects launch them and then let them die off.

    The main problem is maintenance of software is tedious when compare to innovation.

    Google products that I will like to see updated are Google Docs, Blogger, Google Talk.

    Other Google products I would like to see are a forum platform of some kind, a cloud storage system.

  2. Cody, first to correct something: Google has been a publicly traded company (trading under the symbol GOOG on NASDAQ) since 2004. Even before that, between having issues shares to a substantial number of employees, and having outside investors, Google has had to “act” as a public company in many ways, simply because of the number of shareholders. A US company with 500 or more shareholders must still file some of the same paperwork as if the company were publicly traded. Every company needs to at least consider the profit implications when starting something. Companies that don’t make a profit (or at the very least break even) don’t tend to stick around very long.

    However, I do agree that the 20%-do-your-own-thing has been an interesting employee benefit, and adds a nice twist vs. just the standard vacation time and other typical benefits. It has, on rare occasion, yielded products that have succeeded (I understand some key products like gmail, Google News, Google Talk and even adsense came out of this project time). If nothing else, helps to keep people both refreshed and interested in sticking around.

    I also agree that maintenance isn’t always interesting (it isn’t one of my favourite things to do). But it’s part of “growing up” and actually following through. It has to be done. It also means finding people who are interested in maintenance. They are out there. But they may not have the same personality type as someone who wants to build “new stuff”, and may not make it through Google’s legendary interview and selection process. Not everyone in a company can be inventing new things. Someone has to make sure that what is out there continues to work.

    Beyond that, some ideas simply need patience. Not everything is going to be a home-run in the first months or even couple of years. It isn’t always easy to know if or when something is either a success or failure. Something can start out feeling like a failure, but time and patience can allow an idea to succeed. If everyone knew perfectly whether something would succeed or fail, there would be a lot more wealthy entrepreneurs out there :-).

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