- Mar 4, 2019
It's only April, and 2019 has already been an absolutely brutal year for Google's product portfolio. The Chromecast Audio was discontinued January 11. YouTube annotations were removed and deletedJanuary 15. Google Fiber packed up and left a Fiber city on February 8. Android Things dropped IoT support on February 13. Google's laptop and tablet division was reportedly slashed on March 12. Google Allo shut down on March 13. The "Spotlight Stories" VR studio closed its doors on March 14. The goo.gl URL shortener was cut off from new users on March 30. Gmail's IFTTT support stopped working March 31.
And today, April 2, we're having a Google Funeral double-header: both Google+ (for consumers) andGoogle Inbox are being laid to rest. Later this year, Google Hangouts "Classic" will start to wind down, and somehow also scheduled for 2019 is Google Music's "migration" to YouTube Music, with the Google service being put on death row sometime afterward.
We are 91 days into the year, and so far, Google is racking up an unprecedented body count. If we just take the official shutdown dates that have already occurred in 2019, a Google-branded product, feature, or service has died, on average, about every nine days.
Some of these product shutdowns have transition plans, and some of them (like Google+) represent Google completely abandoning a user base. The specifics aren't crucial, though. What matters is that every single one of these actions has a negative consequence for Google's brand, and the near-constant stream of shutdown announcements makes Google seem more unstable and untrustworthy than it has ever been. Yes, there was the one time Google killed Google Wave nine years ago or when it took Google Reader away six years ago, but things were never this bad.
For a while there has been a subset of people concerned about Google's privacy and antitrust issues, but now Google is eroding trust that its existing customers have in the company. That's a huge problem. Google has significantly harmed its brand over the last few months, and I'm not even sure the company realizes it.
Google products require trust and investment
Google is a platform company. Be it cloud compute, app and extension ecosystems, developer APIs, advertising solutions, operating-system pre-installs, or the storage of user data, Google constantly asks for investment from consumers, developers, and partner companies in the things it builds. Any successful platform will pretty much require trust and buy-in from these groups. These groups need to feel the platform they invest in today will be there tomorrow, or they'll move on to something else. If any of these groups loses faith in Google, it could have disastrous effects for the company.
Consumers want to know the photos, videos, and emails they upload to Google will stick around. If you buy a Chromecast or Google Home, you need to know the servers and ecosystems they depend on will continue to work, so they don't turn into fancy paperweights tomorrow. If you take the time to move yourself, your friends, and your family to a new messaging service, you need to know it won't be shut down two years later. If you begrudgingly join a new social network that was forced down your throat, you need to know it won't leak your data everywhere, shut down, and delete all your posts a few years later.
There are also enterprise customers, who, above all, like safe bets with established companies. The old adage of "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM" is partly a reference for the enterprise's desire for a stable, steady, reliable tech partner. Google is trying to tackle this same market with its paid G Suite program, but the most it can do in terms of stability is post a calendar detailing the rollercoaster of consumer-oriented changes coming down the pipeline. There's a slower "Scheduled release track" that delays the rollout of some features, but things like a complete revamp of Gmail eventually all still arrive. G Suite has a "Core Services" list meant to show confidence in certain products sticking around, but some of the entries there, like Hangouts and Google Talk, still get shut down.
Developers gamble on a platform's stability even more than consumers do. Consumers might trust a service with their data or spend money on hardware, but developers can spend months building an app for a platform. They need to read documentation, set up SDKs, figure out how APIs work, possibly pay developer startup fees, and maybe even learn a new language. They won't do any of this if they don't have faith in the long-term stability of the platform.
Developers can literally build their products around paid-access Google APIs like the Google Maps API, and when Google does things like raise the price of the Maps API by 14x for some use cases, it is incredibly disruptive for those businesses and harmful to Google's brand. When apps like Reddit clients are flagged by Google Play "every other month" for the crime of displaying user-generated content and when it's impossible to talk to a human at Google about anything, developers are less likely to invest in your schizophrenic ecosystem.
Hardware manufacturers and other company partners need to be able to trust a company, too. Google constantly asks hardware developers to build devices dependent on its services. These are things like Google Assistant-compatible speakers and smart displays, devices with Chromecast built in, and Android and Chrome OS devices. Manufacturers need to know a certain product or feature they are planning to integrate will be around for years, since they need to both commit to a potentially multi-year planning and development cycle, and then it needs to survive long enough for customers to be supported for a few years. Watching Android Things chop off a major segment of its market nine months after launch would certainly make me nervous to develop anything based on Android Things. Imagine the risk Volvo is taking by integrating the new Android Auto OS into its upcoming Polestar 2: vehicles need around five years of development time and still need to be supported for several years after launch.
Google’s shutdowns cast a shadow over the entire company
With so many shutdowns, tracking Google's bodycount has become a competitive industry on the Internet. Over on Wikipedia, the list of discontinued Google products and services is starting to approach the size of the active products and services listed. There are entire sites dedicated to discontinued Google products, like killedbygoogle.com, The Google Cemetery, and didgoogleshutdown.com.
I think we're seeing a lot of the consequences of Google's damaged brand in the recent Google Stadialaunch. A game streaming platform from one of the world's largest Internet companies should be grounds for excitement, but instead, the baggage of the Google brand has people asking if they can trust the service to stay running.
In addition to the endless memes and jokes you'll see in every related comments section, you're starting to see Google skepticism in mainstream reporting, too. Over at The Guardian, this line makes the pullquote: "A potentially sticky fact about Google is that the company does have a habit of losing interest in its less successful projects." IGN has a whole section of a report questioning "Google's Commitment." From a Digital Foundry video: "Google has this reputation for discontinuing services that are often good, out of nowhere." One of SlashGear's "Stadia questions that need answers" is "Can I trust you, Google?"
One of my favorite examples came from a Kotakuinterview with Phil Harrison, the leader of Google Stadia. In an audio interview, the site lays this whopper of a question on him: "One of the sentiments we saw in our comments section a lot is that Google has a long history of starting projects and then abandoning them. There's a worry, I think, from users who might think that Google Stadia is a cool platform, but if I'm connecting to this and spending money on this platform, how do I know for sure that Google is still sticking with it for two, three, five years? How can you guys make a commitment that Google will be sticking with this in a way that they haven't stuck with Google+, or Google Hangouts, or Google Fiber, Reader, or all the other things Google has abandoned over the years?"
Yikes. Kotaku is totally justified to ask a question like this, but to have one of your new executives face questions of "When will your new product shut down?" must be embarrassing for Google.
Harrison's response to this question started with a surprisingly honest acknowledgement: "I understand the concern." Harrison, seemingly, gets it. He seemingly understands that it's hard to trust Google after so many product shutdowns, and he knows the Stadia team now faces an uphill battle. For the record, Harrison went on to cite Google's sizable investment in the project, saying Stadia was "Not a trivial product" and was a "significant cross-company effort." (Also for the record: you could say all the same things about Google+ a few years ago, when literally every Google employee was paid to work on it. Now it is dead.)
Harrison and the rest of the Stadia team had nothing to do with the closing of Google Inbox, or the shutdown of Hangouts, or the removal of any other popular Google product. They are still forced to deal with the consequences of being associated with "Google the Product Killer," though. If Stadia was an Amazon product, I don't think we would see these questions of when it would shut down. Microsoft's game streaming service, Project xCloud, only faces questions about feasibility and appeal, not if Microsoft will get bored in two years and dump the project.
How did we get here?
Google's love of product shutdowns is mostly just a side effect of Google's love for developing products. Calling anything a "Google Product" is usually a gross simplification—Google rarely does anything as a singular company. Instead, the industry giant is made up of autonomous product groups that develop and launch things on their own schedule. This is why Google often ends up making "Two of everything:" different teams don't communicate and end up tackling the same problem with different ideas.
Google's strategy of having multiple teams throw things against the wall to see what sticks leads to lots and lots of products and services launching all the time, all with varying levels of quality, integration with other Google products, and varying lifetimes. It also leads to lots and lots of product cancellations.
A better way to frame launches and other decisions inside of Google is try to figure out which team inside of Google has built a product, and to view each product team as a separate entity. The Google Assistant does well, because it is run by the Google Search team. On the other side of the spectrum, we have the Google Messaging team, which—after Hangouts, Hangouts Chat, Allo, Duo, Google Voice, and Android Messages—has pretty much no credibility left at all. The Android Team is easily one of the steadiest, most reliable groups at Google. Having various teams launch whatever hardware they want was a mess until all the hardware was put under the control of a new Google Hardware division.
The Gmail team lives under the "Google Apps" umbrella, and it's responsible for developing and shutting down Inbox. Google Apps, with its enterprise focus, is usually a stalwart group, and Inbox is the first big shutdown from the Google Apps team in a long time. Google Fiber is not even part of Google; instead, it's a separate company under Google's parent company, Alphabet.
Every shutdown has a story
Google+ was created as a brand-new division inside of Google, led by Vic Gundotra. Back in 2011, success in social was considered critical to Google's survival, and Gundotra was given the title of "Senior Vice President." That made him one of eight or so people that regularly reported to then-CEO Larry Page. From here Google+ followed a pattern we see a few times with Google product launches and cancellations: Gundotra, the driving force behind Google+, left Google (or perhaps was compelled to leave Google) in 2014, which signaled the beginning of the end for Google+. Google+ was immediately stopped, Plus' more successful features were spun off, and eventually Google killed Google+ after a revelation of data security issues was made public.
Any website with traffic analytics will tell you that Google+ usage has been continually declining, but shutting down a major product due to a data leak is certainly a strange decision. I could understand if the product was being abandoned entirely, but the enterprise version of Google Plus will continue to live on. Google has even promised a redesign and new features for the enterprise version.
Hangouts was a product that never quite found a solid home inside Google. It was cooked up by the Google+ team as a way to combine all of Google's other messaging services into a single app. When Plus started its death spiral, Hangouts didn't have an obvious home in another division at Google. Eventually, the standalone messaging team was created, but it seemed more interested in starting its own (numerous) projects than supporting a messaging app created by someone else.
Google Play Music is dying due to pretty much the same situation as Hangouts. Back in 2011, iOS had a great music solution (iTunes), while Android didn't. So Google Music was created by the Android team as part of the "Android Market" content store. With Web clients and plans to branch out onto iOS, the "Android Market" branding didn't make a ton of sense, so eventually the "Google Play" brand was born, and eventually Google Play became separate from the Android division. Now we have Google's YouTube taking over a lot of Google's media content strategy with all new apps, and just like Hangouts, it seems like a solid product is dying due to "not invented here" syndrome.
I could go on forever about the explanations behind Google's many shutdowns. The shutdowns are all from independent teams making independent decisions, with products, employees, and divisions shifting around as time goes by. The rationale behind each shutdown doesn't really matter though—the problem is the cumulative effect of all these individual shutdowns on Google's reputation and Google's customers that, time and time again, have products taken away from them.
Maybe it’s time for a public roadmap
With all of the shutdowns already announced, I'm not sure there's anything Google can do to help its reputation at this point. The amount of people I see stillbringing up Google Reader's shutdown is incredible—having a frequently used Web service snatched away from you sticks with people. If people lose confidence in Google's ability to host a stable lineup of services, more and more users will move out of the Google ecosystem. Then, like we're already seeing with Stadia, the company would face an uphill battle to get people to use its new products.
I've been promoting a "wait and see" approach for most new Google products since at least 2016. But to see Google's support now become the subject of punchlines on the Internet should be extremely concerning for Google.
One thing that could placate Google users is for the company to just tell us what is going on. Google already makes support promises for some of its products. Pixel phones and Chromebooks both have dashboards that show promised support windows and public end-of-life dates. Meanwhile, Google already hosts various uptime pages and other statistics. I want communication from Google that says which products will be around for a long time and which are a low priority at the company. Would it be so hard to publicly commit to running Stadia for five years no matter what? For its more successful products, Google could commit to 10 years of running a service and update the dashboard from time to time with later dates.
I realize most companies don't do this, but most companies don't have the reputation Google has for killing products. It makes sense to counter the memes of "haha, how long until Google discontinues this product?" with a public statement of "not for at least seven years." We just want to see a damn product roadmap, Google. Give us a list of "Long Term Support (LTS)" products.
Google likes to experiment, but it needs to be better at communicating what products will be around for a while and which ones will be thrown against the wall to see what sticks. Sometimes Google is good with this kind of communication. The recent launch of Google's Reply app was handled well, for example. Google called the service "an experiment," and it was from a new skunkworks inside Google called "Area 120." Everything about the service made it sound like a temporary testing ground, and when the product was shut down, Google's messaging was great: "Reply was an experiment, and that experiment has now ended." This was a fine way to go about things.
By contrast, nothing about the launch of Google Inboxmade it sound like a product that would only stick around for a few years. Inbox was "years in the making," and the blog post made it seem like Google's email client for the future.
As it stands now, products that were the center of the company a few years ago (RIP, Google+) are on the chopping block in 2019, and Google seems ready to kill any product that doesn't have a billion daily active users. Without knowing the reason behind this wave of shutdowns (was there some new mandate inside the company to trim down?), nothing from Google seems safe anymore.
Google neglected to mention Google Voice in its last big messaging update. Should we read into that? Waze's features are slowly being moved over to Google Maps. Is that a bad sign? (Android) Wear OS is basically in last place in the smartwatch wars. Nest doesn't make a profit and recently was stripped of its Google independence. Google's Fuchsia OS is staring down an expensive multi-year development cycle, and the supposed plan to replace Android will be a steepuphill battle. How confident are you that all of these products will be around in a few years?
Every time Google shuts down a product, its reputation is harmed. A shutdown makes users feel betrayed, it makes trusting other Google services harder, and it makes it harder for Google to pitch new products to users. With so many shutdowns happening lately, I've got to wonder if Google users will start to seek similar services from companies that simply seem more stable.