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What Happened To Google?

This is a legitimate concern of mine. I used to really evangelize Google. Their products were smart, easy to use, catered to those who liked simple easy to use software that was still powerful enough to get things done. I nixed all my old email accounts the day I received my Gmail invite, Google Calendar has been the only app that was able to keep my life organized, and Google Voice allowed me to cancel my text message bundle this year.

But something has happened in the Googleplex. A company that seemed to always focus on making things better and getting out of your way seems to have left that mentality behind. I don't know when it started, but I only recently recognized this trend over the past few months. It seems like everything they release is buggy, uninteresting, and just plain unnecessary.

Now I think it's important to note that Google has always been a company willing to release incomplete software. Gmail, Google Calendar, and a host of other products were in beta status for years. The company did this to openly acknowledge that even though they used it internally, it wasn't something they would recommend for something mission critical. Still, the products were mostly bug free, had plenty of useful features, and even if they were missing something small, it didn't hinder your ability to get work done.

Google Labs was another example of the mentality of not being worried about something failing. They had little tools available for you to play with. You got the benefit of playing with something new and interesting, and they got the benefit of seeing what people did with these unfinished products. Gmail has a labs features, as does Google Calendar. These are essentially extensions to the software that add useful or fun features, but probably haven't been testing extensively.

That leads us to today. As Google grew, it seems that it tried hard to keep it's mentality of release early and see what happens. Google Wave and Google Buzz are the two most glaring examples of this. Both platforms had a lot of potential, but when released, they were so buggy that no one could use them. Considering the hype that Google products get these days it became a bit of an embarrassment for the company. They could no longer afford to release beta software to the general public.

But even as the company seemed to move away from releasing software that wasn't 100% perfect, it seems like it failed to change its internal testing methodology. The most recent examples of this, the updates to Google Reader and Gmail really brought this point home to me. The Reader and Gmail updates made the products considerably less useable. Google Reader loss any definition between the article you were reading and the rest of the app. Gmail is better, but I still find myself struggling to figure out where some features end and others begin. Additionally, both products ran a lot slower after the upgrade. Though this seems to have improved in the day or so after they launched, it was still annoying. I rely on this software now, if it runs slow it makes a difference.

Another recent example was two iOS apps that Google has. One was their Google Voice app, an app that was atrocious from the start. (It was so bad that I ditched it for a paid app from a third party.) Just a few weeks ago Google had to pull their Google Voice app after the iOS 5 update because there was a severe bug. And yesterday, Google released a Gmail app for iOS and yanked it just a few hours later due to bug. This string of buggy releases does not make me hopeful for the future of Google’s software.

That brings me to my final point. The Google of the past had doodles. Simple little changes to the Google logo that were fun, inspirational, taught you something, and generally celebrated people worth celebrating. But they never got in your way. If you were in a rush to look something up, it was easy to ignore the doodle. But even this is beginning to change. Today Twitter was talking about searching for "Do a barrel roll" I resisted at first and then went ahead and typed that into the search box on Google. And yeah, it was fun, the entire site flips over. But it was just that, fun. It served no useful purpose and actually impacted the usability of the website. The Google of 2005 would never have done this.

So what happened to Google? In my eyes and admittedly my eyes are mostly blind, I think it's gotten too big and too public and hasn't adapted as well as it looked like it had. Their QA appears to be stuck in a time where it released buggy products intentionally. And they are letting search become less useful in the pursuit of fun. Maybe they will snap out of it, maybe they won't. But all of this has led me to the realization that it’s time to begin the separation from Google, as painful as it will be.


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