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Google Buzz: Is it Project, Product or Platform?

googlebuzz.pngI think that it’s great that Google is iterating Gmail (read Tim O’Reilly’s excellent write-up on it here), and actually improving an existing product, versus rolling out a knock-off of something that is already in the market.

Nonetheless. I am confused. I thought that Google Wave was destined to be the new Gmail, but after yesterday’s announcement, I am left wondering if Gmail is, instead, the new Google Wave.

How did that happen? Well, for starters, the Company is so obtuse about what’s a Project, what’s a Product and what’s a Platform that I am unsure if Google Buzz is to be treated akin to a “concept car” or if it constitutes a real strategic initiative within the Company.

Worse, Google has this somewhat head-achey culture of creating overlapping offerings (think: Buzz, Wave, Reader, Talk, Gmail, Chrome, Android), and then giving cloudy guidance on demarcation lines between what is what.

As a customer, partner or developer, wouldn’t it be nice if they could just be clear where they are experimenting, where there’s a committed road map with release dates and where the offering ties into a larger vision (e.g., core technologies with unified strategies)?

For example, wouldn’t Google Reader be better nested inside of this buzz-able Gmail than in its current wooden frame? Will the Company ever have a unified reader/player model?

Similarly, if Android is the hot mobile platform, why do we need Chrome? Will tablet devices, a hybrid between mobile devices and netbooks, be Chrome powered or Android powered?

Adding to the confusion, over the years I have seen enough cases where Google offerings sit in Google Labs, yet by all accounts, are real products.

In other cases, the term Beta is more marketing moniker than anything; it doesn’t really mean anything, as it’s not like Google is (generally) committing to dates and deliverables.

Still, in other cases, we just stop hearing about the offering, but even in those cases, the product never fully dies (read: Orkut).

All of this leaves me wondering what in Google’s DNA suggests a culture of delighting customers, and relentlessly focusing on the details needed to deliver a better user experience that is supported by a clear strategy?

If anything, the “Google Way” has taught me that their loosely-coupled approach leads to uninspiring, weakly integrated products that may or may not have a predictable lifecycle to them.

Put another way, why should I pay prolonged, serious attention to Google Buzz until Google shows that THEY are committed to paying prolonged, serious attention to it?

Related Posts:

  1. The Chess Masters: Apple versus Google
  2. Open “ish”: The meaning of open, according to Google
  3. Google Android: Inevitability, the Dawn of Mobile and the Missing Leg
  4. The Google Android Rollout: Windows or Waterloo?

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  • Oleksandr Shturmov

    “Similarly, if Android is the hot mobile platform, why do we need Chrome?” – please don’t confuse Chrome with Chromium, and both of those with Chromium OS. Otherwise, you’re making a good point, but I think it’s a part of the Google “brand”, they don’t make products, they kid around.

  • Mark Sigal

    @Oleksandr, I get the distinction. I should have been explicit, though, and said Chrome OS. Thanks for the note.

  • Luis Alejandro Masanti

    The problem with Google is that they cannot google themselves to know what they want.

    In my opinion, there are two kind of companies: the “focus oriented” and the “all-things oriented”.

    Apple (and Oracle, maybe) are focussed: Apple delivers one integratted solution in several formats: Mac Pro, laptops, iPod, iPhone. Each product has (almost) a perfectly defined target.

    Sony, HP, Dell, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo… are “all-things.” Almost all of them succeded in one aspect (walkman, Windows, search) and then began to try everything to get another success, normaly without success.

    Google is doing everything. Maybe, they will get a new success. Or not.

    But do not ask coherence in development.

  • Tom Trelvik

    All fair and insightful points that I think Google would do well to learn from.

    I think it’s hard to tell with Google because they often don’t know themselves. The degree to which they focus on something seems very much related to the degree of customer interest in it, and this early on they probably don’t even know if it’s just going to remain somebody’s 20% project, or if it’s going to become a core product.

  • Thomas

    Here’s a shot at answers:

    > wouldn’t Google Reader be better nested inside of this buzz-able Gmail than in its current wooden frame

    Eew, no. Don’t assume everyone wants a read/write environment. I certainly don’t want tomix up my RSS reading with email. I understand that techncially they are converging but conceptually they are totally different.

    > wouldn’t it be nice if they could just be clear where they are experimenting, where there’s a committed road map

    What makes you think they know the answers internally? What a huge pain in the ass a Google-wide Product Roadmap would be to create, and it would be dated in ten minutes. They’re playing to their strength here: allowing innovation along multiple branches at once. More top-down planning seems like an un-Google thing to do.

    > if Android is the hot mobile platform, why do we need Chrome?

    Because they don’t really know what each will turn out to be good for? Because they can get more developer interest by exploring multiple platforms at once, rather than choosing just one. Whatever doesn’t work out should get open-sourced anyway.

    > the product never fully dies (read: Orkut).

    By any non-Google standard, Orkut is a success. It happens to be a non-US, non-English success, but whatever.

  • Mark Sigal

    @Luis, that “all-things” oriented analog is a really good one. Kudos. I was going to fork a bit in the piece about how both Apple and Google have studied and learned from Microsoft (in its ‘Win the PC Wars’ days), and note how Apple has learned from them the importance of stick-to-it-iveness, focusing on winning the hearts of developers in platform plays, and the goodness of baking leverage/derivatives across products.

    By contrast, Google has fallen into the bucket that you so aptly name, which too often leads to me-too, half-baked offerings.

    I kept that out, thinking less is more, but your comment warrants a deeper response. Have a great day!

  • Mark Sigal

    @Tom, I agree with your take, but it also underscores my point. I am (mostly) past the point of investing mental time into new products unless the deliver clear utility, joy and have a quasi understood path to them.

    @Thomas, thanks for the counter-perspective. As I note, in the Chess Masters post, which is linked to above, there is more than one way to build a company, and it’s hard to argue with success (Apple, Google and Amazon are my platinum, gold and silver standard-bearers, respectively). But sometimes, I feel like akin to your Google-wide product road map reference (it’d be hard), that Google is playing with house money, having won the jackpot on search and keyword advertising, and while it’s totally within their right to put a few shekels on every number on the board, I just don’t believe that it yields great products, as the discipline in casting a lot of seeds is very different than that of cultivating and harvesting.

  • Sean Smith

    It’s human nature to define and categorize things. But since you are not purchasing these things the only thing that matters is if you use them. Google just wants your fingers and eyeballs not your wallet.

    If you bought a PC that turned out to be a horrible value because of other oferrings or software that became orphaned you would be unhappy. If you have a web feature you don’t use, well who cares.

    Mark I love android on my G1. If I have android on my gPad down the road using chrome OS, frankly why should I care if it works. We are all going to meet in the sun under HTML5 anyway.

  • Ken Williams

    Why does it matter to you whether it’s a project, a product, or a platform? For that matter, which of those categories is Linux, or Apache, or Windows 7, or zfs, or the iPhone, or Twitter, or… you get the idea.

    For me, the New World Order (driven by OSS & Maker culture) says that you should make something useful, let people use it & learn from it, and only later worry about where you’re going from there.

  • Mark Essel

    I’m heavily in agreement with @Tom, and @Thomas Mark but I can see why you wouldn’t want to bother learning a technology that has no future.
    I believe feedback is what drives most skilled authors to keep on creating, and you are certainly a skilled author.

    Info Points (my 2 cents):
    Android is a for mobile, netbooks, ?, and does more than browse the web

    Chrome OS: is just a fully focused Netcentric view where the hardware that runs Chrome OS will be simply an enabler to cloud apps/information

    Orkut is really hot in Brazil, perhaps you weren’t aware?

    Finally, I respect your dislike for Google’s “loose” style of product development and lack of a formal product plan. But I have to flip back your rationale. Yeah both Google and Apple had an opportunity to learn from Microsoft (who’s not dead yet), but where Apple continued along with the house that Steve built (and it’s a beaut), Google has embraced the power of the swarm. Why attach resources to a product that’s not finding traction. In essence they have become a super powered startup, passing along 20% free time to each of their engineers. Expect that percentage to increase in their environment of controlled chaos.

    For a living example of controlled chaos I point you to a wonderful engineering case study: Linux
    See Evolutionary Engineering and how Linus got the ball rolling. It’s a stark contrast to the micromanagement/control ethos that I imagine Steve Jobs uses to master his design creations.

  • Mark Sigal

    @Sean, that’s where I disagree. When you say not purchasing, that implies a different bar of product expectations, but to me, my currency is time and information. Often, information and engagement have more durable value than the almighty coin. Thanks for the constructive feedback.

    @Ken, you and I fundamentally agree. My argument is that Google products are often less useful specifically because the discipline they put behind it is very different than if you were operating as if your career (or financial life) depended upon it. I would be all for them having some framework for segmenting their audience (mostly via clear communication) between early adopters, mainstream and laggards so that we consumers could say “okay they are just playing now, but it might materially change or go away tomorrow.” Or similarly, see them commit in earnest to a Seed, Select and Amplify strategy where they are transparent when products move from Seed stage (plant a lot but make tiny investments) to Select stage (pick the winners, kill the losers) and finally, to Amplify stage (feed and fertilize the winners). My thesis is that instead, they work backwards from their culture to the consumer, which is less satisfying to me personally.

    @Mark, right or wrong, I have moved past the stage of getting excited by shiny objects as an end-all, which is probably a sign of my entering the crotchety stage of life and having seen too many promising product ideas that fail to deliver on the (conceptual) promise. Don’t get me wrong, though, I am all for experimenting, and am totally an advocate of the ship the idea, fix it and then iterate model. That fits well within the Google loosely coupled culture, 20% and what-not. But again, my argument is that when I see offerings like Latitude, which are well thought out, but I have no clue where it’s going, rightly or wrongly, I knee jerk to “Wake me up when I should REALLY care.”

    As to Chrome OS v. Android OS, again, I believe that that one is driven by Google culture more so than working backwards from markets and customers. As to Orkut, maybe if they merge with Friendster, they will be big in Brazil AND the Philippines.

    Final point, to be clear, I am NOT advocating that Google feed losers, but rather they show us the score, and to make the point, formally kill the losers. Will check out the link. Thanks for the detailed thoughts.

    Mark

  • Jason Lotito

    I want to focus on the Google Wave remark. You mention your confusion over whether Gmail is becoming Wave, or Wave is become Gmail. I agree, it looks like that from the front. However, the first critical thing to understand here is that Wave isn’t complete yet. It’s far from it. Wave isn’t a website. Wave is a foundation, intended to be a standard. The *Google* part of Wave isn’t even important. You could technically have Facebook Wave, Twitter Wave, and heck, even Oreilly Radar Blogging Wave.

    That’s the goal. People log into Google Wave, look at the coolness, and the newness, and then ask “What am I supposed to do with this?”

    The answer is, in fact, rather simply, though implementing that task is rather daunting. After all, email was something that was just launched and then was everywhere all at once.

    Take something as simple as this comment I’m posting. Oreilly could at some point integrate this into a Wave. After all, they’ve integrated email into this at some point. Now, I can follow up with any replies. I can also follow the conversation above, all from whatever Wave client I use.

    I can’t do this with email. Oh sure, email can send me an update when a comment is made. But a Wave can store the conversation, and let me follow it how I want.

    Now, I tend to write long comments. I understand brevity, I choose not to employ it. Since my comments are long, at some point I might want to turn my comment into a blog post. With Wave, a simple click (or maybe not even if I elect so) would be enough to post this to my website. My comment is a new post, complete with references back to this original post, and associating comments.

    Of course, this blog post and it’s comments that it most assuredly generated could be tied in to this Wave as well. This would let you follow the discussion your original post generated to places that you might not otherwise find.

    Couple this with your post on the Newsweek site, associating this link here with that post there, could tie…

    Well, I think you see the point.

    Of course, what this all requires is a Wave server at multiple locations. When you consider how Email works, a Wave server isn’t something that is too far off the mark. Of course, integrating this into Gmail isn’t far off the mark, either.

    I think Wave is truly the first really new product we are seeing out of any Internet company in a long time. Most everything else has been a byproduct of the tools available. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc; are all just personalized CRUD tools. Oh, they are new and do a fine job, but they aren’t really that new in what they do, or what they are trying to do. YouTube is just playing videos, something that was only really possible because Macromedia made Flash Videos a reality. Even Gmail was just an Email Reader with less features, but a simple interface and lots of storage space (something unheard of at the time).

    Heck, even Google itself is just a search engine at the core.

    What Wave is, at it’s core, the real Wave, not the Google Wave UI, is big. If it becomes as pervasive as email is, or even half as much, it will really change the way we use the internet.

  • Mark Sigal

    @Jason, suggestion number one is that you write a blog post derived from your comments, as obviously this is an area of high passion for you, which is great!

    I have blogged on where I think messaging based architectures are headed here:

    The Mobile Broadband Era: It’s About Messages, Mobility and The Cloud (http://radar.oreilly.com/2009/07/the-mobile-broadband-era-its-a.html)

    So you are preaching to the choir, although I would disagree with the assessment about Wave not being a website.

    I have a Wave thread going on as we speak. Like you said, Wave is unfinished, but relative to what’s built out in terms of explicitly supported workflows, it has some promise. (In my case, the trigger was a brainstorm by four people instigated by a long email that framed the follow-on discussion.)

    Again, it frames my Google conundrum. Promising product, arguably even more promising platform, but unclear where and when this heads.

    If this was Apple, there would be a Wave SDK, Wave App Store, and more to the point, all core Google Services (Search, News, YouTube, Maps, etc.) would be integrated with both the platform and the SDK as evidence that Google is eating its own dogfood and proving out best practices.

    Now, what I am saying is somewhat of a setup because Google DID announce that they will EVENTUALLY launch an App Store for Wave. They announced this in late October. Let’s see if, when and how they follow up with that.

    Thanks again for the detailed thoughts.

    Mark

  • TeaKayB

    I quite like the ‘anything can happen in the next half hour’ feel to many of Google’s products. They tend to evolve by themselves rather than be developed; sometimes they hit a nerve in the public consciousness and so thrive; other times they fizzle out and die (or, more likely, in the case of Orkut, lie panting on the roadside, largely forgotten but still present). The ones that (sort of) disappear- who cares? It’s the ones that stick around that matter, and they seem to send out feelers and tentacles that may or may not conjoin and start to work together.

    I like the way Google’s products progress- on more than one occasion, if I have thought “I wish [suchandsuch]” with reference to one or more of Google’s products, within a few months it has happened, or at least moved a step along the way.

    Wave has disappointed me because I can’t find a decent use for it. But Buzz has already impressed me with its intuitive usefulness. I wouldn’t, for example, have come across this very article if it weren’t for Buzz.

  • Steve

    Great article Mark, thanks.

    While most Google products/projects/experiments do fit the strategy of keeping as many balls in the air for as long as possible, I think the Android OS vs Chrome OS is something else entirely. Google didn’t just release Chrome OS, they released a statement of intention – they announced ‘vaporware’. And they did it just when speculation about Android OS becoming a potential Windows killer on the netbook was white-hot. Microsoft couldn’t have been more pleased. So why do it to yourself? It seems to me that Android OS is more akin to the IBM PC as a precedent than to MS/DOS (re the Apple vs MS/DOS analogy as applied to iPhone vs Android phones) – in that the IBM PC let the cat out of the bag and then everybody started making IBM clones, unencumbered.
    … Once ASUS and ACER started doing just that with prototype Android-powered netbooks, either Google woke up, or someone tapped them on the shoulder and said: “This could be the IBM PC all over again! The Android OS is ‘too’ open for anything beyond the phone.” I.e. Android is controllable on the phone via the Google add-ons that make a smart phone useful, but on a netbook, a laptop or a tablet, it could go in all directions. The Google vaporware announcement was an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle, to hose down the “Android on the netbook” campaign. You can be fairly sure that the Chrome OS, when it is eventually delivered, will be far more proprietary than Android currently is.

  • Mark Sigal

    @TeaKayB, great perspective, and I am perennially reminded (and cognizant) that there are multiple ways of getting consumers to the promised land.

    @Steve, interesting take on Chrome OS being likely more proprietary. Haven’t thought on what Chrome OS is that makes it’s existence even necessary (other than satisfying the Google internal structure) but Google rolling out their own Nexus device seems to be a bit of a hedge your bets on the tightly integrated v. loosely coupled approach. That said, I think the motivator in that case is less about control and more about fear that the body android needed some kind of steroids to QUICKLY bulk up enough to stay in the game relative to iPhone.

  • Anthony Cohen

    I find the Google strat rather differentiated myself. As they seem to place similar products within the same environment, However most of them are pointed at the consumer US, with a set way of using or interfacing. Im tired of this approach. We the users are the ones in charge we need products that help our lives and simplify our lives, route to trusted content, filters etc not just another offering that does vaguely what another does as this just increases the noise. How many platforms can I be on that all offer the same of just a tad different. I though Buzz would be a game changer but it is way behind the steal start-up http://www.mygeni.org in the way it delivers content and relevancy. And the approach of just getting your gmail list to follow you is DARK!

  • Mark Sigal

    @Anthony, I am confused. You open by saying that you find the Google strategy differentiated, but then you say, “How many platforms can I be on that all offer the same of just a tad different.” Just want to make sure I am clear if you are a fan of their product strategy or giving them the thumbs-down, or a little of both. Which is it?

  • Pankaj

    It is ironical this be written so few months before Wave is finally dying. I guess the lack of resolution of your question finally lead to Wave’s demise.

    Pankaj
    Hyper Office