What the Death of Google Labs Means for Innovation at Google


There are a lot of useless Google Labs features. A few examples: Play, a failed attempt to make scrolling through your RSS feeds in Google Reader more interesting; Tashkeel, an entire service meant to help you find which diacritics are missing from Arabic text; and Realtime MyTracks, which allows you to follow the nine riders from Team HTC in the Tour de France as they race across the country.

And, if those are the only Google Labs projects you were aware of, you might not think twice about Google's announcement this afternoon that it is shutting down the entire operation in an effort to focus its energy. Those features are silly; they can't be easily monetized and, thus, aren't worth putting much effort into.

"[W]e're prioritizing our product efforts," Bill Coughran, senior vice president for research and systems infrastructure, wrote on the Official Google Blog. "As part of that process, we've decided to wind down Google Labs. While we've learned a huge amount by launching very early prototypes in Labs, we believe that greater focus is crucial if we're to make the most of the extraordinary opportunities ahead." Read: They're making a big bet on Google+, the search giant's new social network, and it's all hands on deck in Mountain View.

But Google Labs isn't just about building applications that are meant to stop you from drunk dialing people in your contacts list or mapping out how tenuous the links between you and your friends really are. Google Labs is about enabling and encouraging people to come up with the Next Big Thing. "We'll continue to push speed and innovation -- the driving forces behind Google Labs -- across all our products," Coughran wrote, "as the early launch of the Google+ field trial last month showed." But if those products don't work, then what?

Google won't have anything else to fall back on, nowhere to focus those efforts. Google Maps, Google Reader, Google Trends, Google Alerts, Google Groups -- these all started as Google Labs projects and eventually graduated out of the system. They've since become, in addition to search, some of the most popular products that the company offers. In addition, some Google Labs projects have turned into viral hits (see: Flu Trends and Ngram Viewer).

Without Google Labs, you can expect to see Google continue to launch new products -- or continue to try out new things with Google+ -- but only because it has to to remain competitive. Without the testing ground and public development period that other prototypes have been subjected to, though, you can also expect to see more failures. Brutal, public failures. Remember Google Buzz? Some genius had the idea to launch that messaging tool without running it through Google Labs first. Look what happened.

Most Google Labs projects are unceremoniously killed. They're duds. But the few success stories to come out of the system have made the entire program worth it. And keeping the duds under the Google Labs umbrella meant that any failures could be shrugged off. There, failures were almost as good a thing as successes. They meant that the company was committed to innovative thinking, to trying out ideas and seeing if they might work on a larger scale. Launching bad products without Labs means that failures will be just -- and only -- that: failures.

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One more thought: Killing Google's proven innovation machine is my biggest problem with this afternoon's announcement. But I have another issue: My inbox. I, like many, many others, have come to rely on my Gmail. I use it for just about everything and, if you were to steal my password and log-in, you would find dozens of labels and stars and other organizational systems in place. You would see chat windows and a priority inbox and a drafts section all displayed together, on one screen. You would even be able to shuffle back and forth from one inbox to another without even signing out.

"I bet I am not alone," GigaOm's Stacey Higginbotham wrote about this very subject. She's right. "For many of Google's hard-core or even medium-core users, certain labs features have become essential tools to personalize the apps to their needs." (Entire articles and how-to guides have been written explaining which Google Labs features for Gmail are the best, the most useful.)

Google has not let us know which features we're going to lose or when, but I'll know it almost immediately. I expect that my inbox, which is overloaded and patched with so many features that I can't remember what a default account even looks like, will just about fall apart at the seams.

Image: Google Labs.