Google Apps – A Half-Baked Derivative Geekfest

Alex Williams, writing at ReadWriteWeb, held up Google Apps as an example for Larry Page, Google’s new old CEO to follow. He offered up a few reasons. Per Alex, Google Apps:

  • Contains a credible set of core components
  • Fits with a number of associated services
  • Fits with other Google products, Android and Chrome OS
  • Is a “framework” (can build on it)
  • Attracts “young developers” who use the framework
  • Does not involve space travel

The last point is undeniable (I think?), but I nonetheless feel that Alex’s conclusion is wrong.

Let’s look at Google Apps differently. It is:

  • Derivative (of Microsoft Office)
  • 80% baked: GMail scalability and simplicity is great, but the UI is as ugly as any major website; their conversation view is a good idea, but inconsistent in user experience; shared calendars, great but buggy; spreadsheet UI is buggy – and so on.
  • Undifferentiated – too much of the “differentiation” – it’s implemented using web technologies! – is geeky stuff many ordinary users don’t care about
  • Not quite a corporate-grade product (too flakey), and not quite consumer-suitable (too geeky, GMail aside)
  • Money-loosing, and probably always will be (on current trajectory)
  • Fighting the last war, against Microsoft’s Office product, not the current one (social) nor the next (uber mobility)
  • Hard to transitioning from existing (Microsoft) setups due to weak migration tools
  • In fairness, the extensibility is worthwhile

What lessons does this hold for startups?

Most importantly, aiming for the new, the “whitespace on the map” rather than well-explored territory, makes it much easier to build a real business. Established business areas can be lucrative for startups (including by creating strategic value for acquisition), but relevant-to-users differentiation and relevant-to-users problems-to-be-solved are needed.

Secondly, do what you can do excellently. And no more. Focus on that excellence. The 80%-baked problem is a killer for creating actual value for customers – and it’s something Google seems to suffer from, with their bottoms-up development process.

I can confirm from (bitter?) experience that these two points are actually close to being a single point. If you target something new, you won’t be dragged so easily into feature-comparisons with existing products in the space, and won’t be tempted, or forced, to try and do too much.

So no – while Google Apps has its merits, I would not hold up as a model – either for a startup, or for Google.

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