Is Google’s Innovation Stagnant?

by Christopher Paul on March 16, 2008

I voted in the 2008 Webware 100 Awards

I voted in this years Webware 100 awards – just like last year – and looking at all those websites and their offerings got me thinking a bit about Google and their ability to innovate. As you can see from the list, there are 300 finalists (Webware’s words) out of hundreds of thousands more. They are categorized in ten different but sometimes overlapping ways. Last year, I used the contest to research new Web 2.0 sites and its what got me interested in a lot of the social qualities of what makes a site, a Web 2.0 site. You can thank the 2007 Webware awards for getting me into Twitter and other micro blogging engines like Tumblr and, later, Pownce.

The Webware awards also let me touch the pulse of that is hot and new in core web technology and innovation; it also gave an insight as to how companies hope to – and in some cases had hoped – to make money in an area that, like the dot com bubble before, was littered with bad business models and unusually lofty dreams of success. In fact, the difficulty faced by even those mentioned in the list became very apparent to those involved with AllPeers, a file sharing service who’s investors didn’t see a money making opportunity any longer.

But the organizations that remain are, regardless of their profitability, truly amazing. They offer a wide range of products and services that, if they haven’t already, could alter the face of social, mobile, and collaborative communication in business, research, and art of all kinds. Many are house hold names: MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and Gmail. Some are “relics” of earlier innovation that still remain popular: Firefox, iChat (and other chat clients like Pidgin), and eBay. But most of the contestants are very new to the Web 2.0 landscape; websites like Pownce, Hi5, iLike, Mint, and Picnik didn’t exist a year ago (to my knowledge, anyway). Each of them brings a new idea to their respective categories and are the reason they are a part of the top .03% of all the nominated sites. And while Google is mentioned ten times in all of those 300 finalists, they are for products I’ve seen before and have been using for years; it made me wonder, is Google’s innovation stagnant?

Now before all you Google lovers attack me, know that I am a huge fan of Google’s products. I used them for search almost as soon as the site was up. I’ve been using Gmail since I got an invite way back when you only got five invites to give away. I’ve used their Calendar app since in came out and even have all their Blackberry applications installed on my beloved smartphone. And I have great respect for the products I don’t use regularly – like AdWords and Groups. But when I look at the newer sites out there, I can’t believe that Google has let their most popular sites stagnate like they have done.

First, let’s talk about YouTube. YouTube, as a concept was revolutionary! It was one of (if not THE) first flash video sharing sites. While as popular as ever, YouTube looks horrible! The interface is ugly and is difficult to navigate; it could use a visual refresh. I know that Google like to keep their pages running quickly and deliberately keep complex graphics and flashy code out of their products but there could be a cleaner interface without bloat. I uploaded a video today and I was completely in the dark as to the progress of the upload and when to expect it to show up on the site. In contrast, I uploaded a video to Vimeo, a website up for the Webware 100 award in the same video category, showed me the progress for the upload and had a percentage and time estimate when the video was going to be processed. Because Vimeo can handle HD, the video I uploaded – a 640×480 clip – wasn’t degraded in anyway; the quality was the same as if I was watching it on my desktop. Vimeo isn’t the only one that’s better than YouTube; Viddler is another sharing site that, in my opinion, is nicer than YouTube. Now I know that there are more videos on YouTube and that helps it stay popular but I don’t want to use the site myself because it just feels old – as old as the original site before Google bought them for 1.6B.

Blogger is another site that has suffered from Google. Yes, they integrated their log-on system and have made some minor updates to the site but its still the same basic blogging engine. The site, while relatively simple, is the same site it was when I first joined up in August of 2004!! Since then, WordPress has become my de facto blogging engine. And they certainly the only one in town; there is MT, Vox, TextPattern, Drupal, and SO many more. AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft, MySpace and other well known sites have their own systems to let users write and interact socially. Now they might not be as great as WordPress or MT4, they are evolving! MT4 recently came out; WordPress release 2.4 and now 2.5 is around the corner! When is Blogger going to get a major revision?

Gmail; my favorite and only email client has never gotten me down. Its relatively fast and its conversation view is second to none. The spam fighting technology they came up with is enough for me to use it as long as it works. Its not the only email address I use, however, I have specific emails for each website under the domain but they all forward to Gmail so I can get the spam filtering and the easy IMAP/POP access for my Mail app for the Mac and my Blackberry (respectively). Again, the interface isn’t new or fresh or even feature rich as some of their counterparts. Yahoo’s mail system looks great! Microsoft’s is ok… I just don’t like the colors they use for the branding. But it’s not Hotmail any more. AOL’s web email also looks great and they all do the same thing. Granted, Gmail is adding features that keep it new – so, again, I don’t want to discount what they have done. But POP access? IMAP? Is that really innovation? They came up with a great message view and spam catcher and that’s about it. What’s next?

Twitter. Where’s their Twitter clone? Jaiku? It’s been closed since Google bought it so I can’t say that if it needs new features but they were acquired in October – and they just got started bringing it up to speed to Tumblr and Twitter. And where is their huge social networking site like LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, and others. Orkut is the only one that I know of and it isn’t very popular – only in Brazil where it has suffered a great deal of bad press and negative user feedback from some scandals down there. They’ve owned since before they went public and nothing has come from that space.

All this isn’t to say that Google isn’t innovating; they have Google Docs, Google Apps for your domain, Google Maps, and many other search related products. But when Zoho is offering a much more mature product, are all those “beta” tags Google sticks to the end of their sites really mean that the best is yet to come?

There are so many other sites out there who have a new take on what Google can do and offer. Before it was Microsoft and, to a degree, Yahoo. Now, Google is the target and they aren’t losing to those other two large companies, they are losing to all the smaller sites who think outside Google’s box. Perhaps in indicative when Facebook is stealing all their talent – just like Google did before to MS and Yahoo. Its probably a sign of things to come (or not come as the case may be) when your the top talent leaves a company known for the cutting edge to go to a company that is on the cutting edge. While it could be the economy, could their lack of innovation and difficulties in keeping top talent be a contributing factor to their stock’s decline?

I think so.

Mark K. Kim April 9, 2008 at 6:31 PM

Didn’t realize you were so opinionated about technology. Any opinion on Grand Central? =)

You can use POP with Fidessa Blackberry?

C.G. April 9, 2008 at 7:53 PM

I do… more on that in a minute… 😉

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