Finale for Now on Google's Self-Inflicted Trust Problem

Let's hope this is a rough patch rather than the beginning of a trend.
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google-im-feeling-lucky.jpgEarly 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.

Now, two notes on the positive side -- each of which is a reminder of what we have liked about Google.

1) Google has often orphaned services, but it has never "disappeared" data. (I am using "to disappear" in the transitive-verb sense familiar from Latin American politics.) It has been a leader in making sure you could make your own copies, or extract, any of your info that was in its part of the cloud. A reader writes:

One bit of the risk analysis of using Keep or any other new Google product is their commitment to letting you get back your data. As you know, the Google Data Liberation Front is dedicated to helping people get their data out of Google in a standard format. Over time, it's been clear that this is an initiative Google takes seriously.

So while it's a bummer that Reader is closing down, I can export my list of feeds in a standard format and use any of a hundred other RSS products. The same is true of all the other Google products I use.

Like you, I'm cautiously evaluating Keep. Whether I continue using it will depend on what the Drive integration looks like, specifically how easily I can export my Keep notes. [JF note: Also, whether there would be an iOS version, so I could sync it to my iPad. A plus of Evernote is that you can use it on just about any device or system.]

This is a key component of trusting cloud services, Google gets it at a ever deep level, and it's worth a mention.

2) I have relentlessly beat the drum for Google's "two-step" authentication systems for Gmail and other services, which radically reduce the likelihood that your account can be hacked from afar. Apple is only now playing catch-up with this feature.

To wrap this up: I am intrigued by Keep but unfortunately am not going to risk trying it. I admire and rely on Google and hope this recent stretch ultimately proves to have been a chastening rough patch rather than what we look back on as the beginning of a trend.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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