Early yesterday I mentioned that while Google's new Keep application, a nascent all-purpose notetaker, looked very interesting, I wasn't going to waste time getting used to it. That is because of the company's now-established track record of killing off products that prove to have niche rather than sufficiently mass appeal.
This could be a sane business strategy for Google -- network TV, for instance, is also in the mass rather than niche business. But since my own software tastes often lead in the early-adopter niche direction, I've decided I should stick with companies whose business model is aimed at users like me. When it comes to TV, this means that I watch a lot more things on cable than on the main networks (except sports). When it comes to note-taking software, it means sticking with Evernote, rather than risking that what Google did to Reader, Notebook, Desktop, Health, and other services I used and liked it would eventually do to Keep.
I raise the point again because, since the time I wrote that item (and after I spent all day today in transit), I have seen a quite surprising critical mass of comments in a similar vein. For instance:
- Ezra Klein in the Washington Post, on the dawning awareness that niche enthusiasts like him (and me) have tastes that really don't match Google's business model, as we're now coming to understand it. Eg, "Together, the Gmail experience, the death of Google Reader, and the closure of Picnik all have me questioning whether I want to keep investing time and energy in 'free' Google products or whether I need to start looking for paid services that are explicitly making money off the thing I am paying them to do."
- Kevin Drum, in Mother Jones, on why the inability to rely on Google services is more disruptive than the familiar pre-cloud experience of having favorite programs get orphaned. My example is Lotus Agenda: it has officially been dead for nearly 20 years, but I can still use it (if I want, in a DOS session under the VMware Fusion Windows emulator on my Macs. Talk about layered legacy systems!). When a cloud program goes away, as Google Reader has done, it's gone. There is no way you can keep using your own "legacy" copy, as you could with previous orphaned software.
- An Economist item that offers an even harsher judgment. Eg, "Translated into economese, Google has failed to consider the Lucas Critique: adoption behaviour for newly offered services will change in response to Google's observed penchant for cancelling beloved products.... If a particular Google experiment isn't cutting it in that category, then Google may feel justified in axing it.
"But that makes it increasingly difficult for Google to have success with new services. Why commit to using and coming to rely on something new if it might be yanked away at some future date? This is especially problematic for 'social' apps that rely on network effects."
- A note from Brian Glucroft, a veteran of UX (user experience) work at Microsoft and elsewhere:
"I've been pondering about broader UX implications and whether Google has hurt its reputation as 'organizer of all the worlds information.' The latter is part of what I have found so appealing about Google. But, I think the shutdown of Google Reader changes it to 'organizer of all the world's information, if it can be sufficiently profitable".
"Of course Google is a business, but I think people expected it to 'error' in terms of being the best organizer even if it might make a tiny cut in profits. If nothing else, that rep of being the ultimate organizer has a value. And it's been hurt.
"I feel bad for the folks on the Google Keep team. That's life and all, but geez, I'd be banging my head against the wall."
- A statistical analysis from the Guardian, estimating (half-seriously) that based on past performance we can expect Google Keep to survive until 2017.
I am about as pro-Google a person as you're going to find in the media. I've had friends at all levels of the company since its founding, and still do now. I've admired what Google has done in China; I live my info-life within the Gmail / Google Drive universe; and I am predisposed to take Google's side in most controversies, whether against Microsoft or the French. Including when it comes to its influence on the battered journalistic business model it has helped to overturn! But even I think it has done something brand-damaging.