Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Google Reader to Google+: central planning even I don't like

(I'm just kidding. There's lots of central planning I don't like.)

With this switch from Google Reader's social features to integration into Google+, forced from above, it's almost as if the Goog is trying to prove the point of the engineer who recently complained about Google's culture and its failures. Google Reader began life as a simple RSS feeder. Simple and powerful: a program that pushes the content you subscribe to and aggregates it in one place. Google, being a bunch of chronic tinkerers (sometimes to the good, often not), continued to develop Reader and added social features. Rather than using this set of social features in a limited way, a small but passionate group of users adopted Reader as their default social network. (For context, I'm not one of them.)

Designers and those who use designs are always meeting in the middle. Designers make certain plans for functionality and use, and users organically define actual use. Actual use can often subvert the intentions of designers in such a way that it undermines their motives-- most obviously their profit motive-- and as such are designed away. That's neither fair nor unfair in and of itself. The only question is whether designing away organic use makes the product more or less attractive to its user base, and whether or not that in turn undermines the primary motives of the designer. Think about Napster. I am dimly aware that Napster continued to exist following its initial use as a clearinghouse for unpaid for music. It may even exist now, but if it does, it's no Amazon or iTunes. They abandoned the use which its user base actually was attached to, thanks to legal coercion, and the user base vanished. That's an extreme example, but it highlights the delicate balance that designers have to strike in pushing users towards certain official uses without losing the functionality that made the product attractive in the first place.

What makes the Google Reader situation frustrating is that they are facing no coercion except the internal edict to integrate their services into Google+. Part of the early brilliance of Google was the way in which it understood that the profit motive could be an impediment to attracting a user base for new products. They didn't allow immediate profitability to get in the way of developing useful products. (This is like the now-overquoted but still clarifying part in the Social Network where Sean Parker points out that you don't put ads on Facebook because ads aren't cool.) Obviously, it helps when you have a central service, search, that is a cash cow and dominant player to subsidize experiments and new ventures. What's distressing is that Google now seems to be allowing integration to affect its products in a way that it never allowed profitability to.

One of the hardest parts about the kind of expansion Google is continuing to embark on is finding needs to fill. This was the problem with Google Wave, and the reason why Wave failed: it's see a need, fill a need, not design a product, find a need for it to fill. One of the saddest parts about that failure is that people wanted to use Wave. Remember that? People got excited ahead of themselves. Then they didn't end up using it, despite initial enthusiasm, because they didn't find a use. Contrast that with Reader as social feature: a user base that found an organic use for a product and have become attached to it without a coordinated effort on Google's part. Reader's social features are the anti-Wave. I can't understand how a company that is so smart in so many ways is being so stupid in failing to understand its own recent past.

Google is trying to build a mall where it owns all the stores. The problem is that part of what makes a mall work is that its individual franchise owners and operators are invested in their individual stores and not in some centrally-planned definition of the health of the mall. Cinnabon might have to live by certain rules, but it's going to advocate for its own good and not for that of the other stores in the mall. By using its central authority to force Reader to suffer for the good of Google+, Google is threatening an established product and user base for the potential good of an unestablished one that might never take off.

If I was on the Reader team, I'd be screaming now.


Josh said...

Agreed. The ongoing unnecessary redesign of their product suite (Docs, Reader, now Gmail) is super-frustrating, too, because (1) I didn't hear anyone clamoring for it and (2) it's making everything uglier (IMHO) than it used to be.

Evan said...

Absolutely all of this makes perfect sense if you assume that:
1) the advertising side of google has all the money, and will eventually control the company (an important corollary here is that it isn't search that pays the bills but the ads it enables; even search quality will eventually be corrupted by the need to sell ads).
2) that google has decided the second best way (the best being search) to pull eyeballs for ads is a social network.

After that it's easy. Everything pushes you to Plus because Plus gets better ad rates for them.

JGF said...

Loved the comparison to Wave.

I tried it too, then couldn't figure a use so gave up.

Reader social, a tiny investment -- it worked. There were so many ways Google could have brought GSocial into G+ ...

It's stupid on so many levels.

I lost my memory when my shares were deleted. I've just joined the large cohort that considers Google fundamentally untrustworthy. That changes how I use them.

Google just turned a rabid bunch of high-bandwidth infovores into agents for spreading the meme that Google can't be trusted.

Did they think this through?

No, of course not.

Phil K. said...

Violent agreement at long last!

Phil K. said...

Evan, "search will be corrupted" doesn't follow from "ads pay the bills." It's possible, but nothing like inevitable.

David said...

Late to the game but I was struck by how many assertions and observations in this post resonated with evolution, and the curious arguments that arise at the messy interface (or interspace) between Natural Selection and Intelligent Design.

Odds are good this notion is dull and elementary and so is appropriate in a comment that's 3 weeks behind.


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Superman Stamina said...

Do be completely honest, I really like Google reader. I am using it daily.

The 2 Girsl Teach Sex said...

To be honest, I dont like Google + at all.