Blown out the Google Airlock

GoogleAirlockLet’s get the obvious out of the way: Google is an innovator. Their domination in advertising keeps the revenue conveniently flowing, and their self-incubating culture affords them the freedom to truly experiment on a variety of technologies or acquire those who do. Some of these technology experiments take off, others not so much.   Whether the experiments independently generate revenue is almost secondary – as long as there’s room for it in whatever the current Google vision happens to be. However, such unencumbered innovation has a price: what happens when that vision changes? Google doesn’t like playing second fiddle in any given space for long. Instead of evolving a product like any other company to create an effective self-sustaining business model, Google tends to favor the more dramatic approach once the experiment has run its course: blow ’em out the nearest airlock. Think some aspect of Google’s repertoire is necessarily safe? You might think again, in space no one can hear your disapproval.

Google’s open-airlock policy happens to be a rather common play in the Google arsenal. They tend to space indiscriminately, regardless of ephemeral things like popularity. What? You were attached to Google Reader, Gears, or Cloud Connect? Well, return the exactly zero dollars you were paying for it. Whether that runs afoul of Google’s “Don’t be evil” mantra is subject to debate, in some ways it’s clear and swift pragmatism. After all, no one misses Google Wave, Answers, or Buzz and they never made any money. Regardless of the motivation, the reliance on a proliferation of software experiments that aren’t tied to core revenue (or revenue at all for that matter) prevents Google from being serious about business, as I mentioned in Google Won’t Save the Enterprise. Quite a few of Google’s properties (including Reader and Latitude) were shown the space door in the push to drive everyone to Google+. Not from a business model standpoint, per se, but just a change in vision. Now, in the wake of the Google+ team being reassigned after the departure of Vic Gundotra, there’s serious speculation about what’s next. Will G+ itself be handed the infinite void’s cold embrace? Despite G+’s share of nearly a third of social networking logins, TechCrunch seems to think so. This is more than frustrating in that I have no special love for Google+ but can at least appreciate the fact that it’s not Facebook. Meanwhile, there are plenty of awkward sideways glances cast in Google Wallet’s direction lately, while in the shadows there’s a building case for another of Google’s large properties… Google Docs. You’re beginning to damage my calm.

But how can this be? You’ll find article after article of enthusiastic bloggers declaring the death of Microsoft Office in the wake of rising Google Docs adoption. There was quite a bit of buzz that 1 in 5 businesses used Google Docs, all the way back to 2009. Not surprisingly 5 of those 5 same businesses were also Office users – Google Docs was at first an addition to, but not a replacement for the traditional application. It was assumed as the world embraced the cloud, that Google Docs would displace traditional desktop applications like Office, especially among younger users who had little concept or appreciation for desktop applications. A full five years later, we’re clearly soaking in the cloud but is the document landscape transformed? The Google Docs Add On announcement as covered by TechCrunch a couple of months back seem to indicate the battle is far from over:

“With the help of these add-ons, Google is clearly hoping to create a developer ecosystem around Docs. But maybe more importantly, these integrations will also make it more competitive in a landscape where Microsoft is now finally taking the online versions of its Office productivity suite seriously. For many desktop Office users, the ability to bring add-ons to the desktop versions of Word or Excel remains an important selling point.”

But how about those adoption numbers? A more recent survey shows Google Apps with a less than 20% share despite the 1 in 5 early start. Hey Hicks, you look just like I feel. But someone is using Google Docs. It’s hard to get reliable numbers recently, and there’s probably something to that. But few can argue that there’s been real traction in startups and other small business as well as education. The educational market especially has been a ripe target because Chrome OS has proven such a good fit in the space. It’s been all about cost. And many users are simply stopping at cheap as free. But in the interim, the sleeping giant that is Microsoft has been waking up and making Office more resilient and versatile in non-traditional spaces. The battle lines are clearly drawn.

It’s a critically important time for Google Docs and not a time for complacency. So you’d think in the upcoming Google.IO, there would be a big push for Google Docs Add-ons, or some other dramatic innovation. But no, silence. You can almost hear the air escaping – quick put on that helmet! Google Docs instead gets mobile Docs and Sheets standalone apps torn from Google Drive, and Drive itself looses integrated editing features on mobile. So now they are playing more towards Microsoft’s game on Microsoft’s terms, and they’ll get destroyed. Don’t think so? Have a look at this InfoWorld assessment:

“Google spends a lot of money advertising its Google Apps, especially to governments and businesses. Yet its tools in the mobile environment, which is becoming a standard part of business today, are really bad. Worse, six months after it bought the very popular and very functional Quickoffice last year, it eviscerated the product and further limited its access to documents stored on Google Drive — you are forced to use Drive instead for such documents.

It really feels like Google is trying to do mobile office productivity as poorly as possible. Perhaps it entertains the fantasy that we’ll all move to Chrome OS instead. What’s more likely is that we’ll dump Google Apps on all platforms. If Google can’t be serious about mobile productivity apps, why should any person or business be serious about Google?”

Not establishing Google Docs as a self-sufficient and essential part of the revenue stream makes the whole endeavor subject to a shift in the overall vision. If market share continues to stagnate, expect that vision to indeed change. If you’re really married to the integration of Google Docs, you might want to bundle up and hold your breath. One morning you might wake up and find things a mite cold and vacuous. Kind of like Google+