The New York Times has an article titled How Google Decides to Pull the Plug which talks about the rationale behind the rash of abandoned and cancelled projects that have come out of the Big G in recent months. The article contains the following interesting excerpts
GOOGLE recently set the blogosphere abuzz by announcing that it was pulling the plug on several products.
The victims included Lively, a virtual world that was Google’s answer to Second Life; Dodgeball, a cellphone service aimed at young bar-hoppers who wanted to let their friends know where they were hanging out; Catalog Search, which scanned paper product catalogs so they could be searched online; and Notebook, a simple tool that allowed people to take notes on Web sites they had visited.
Google also said it would stop actively developing Jaiku, a microblogging service similar to Twitter, and instead turn it over to its users as an open-source project they could tinker with as they wished.
All of the shuttered projects failed several of Google’s key tests for continued incubation: They were not especially popular with customers; they had difficulty attracting Google employees to develop them; they didn’t solve a big enough problem; or they failed to achieve internal performance targets known as “objectives and key results.”
You’d think that Google, a highly profitable engineer’s playground, would keep supporting quirky side projects as long as someone wanted to work on them. The company, which is best known to consumers for its search engine, is famous in business for promoting innovation by letting engineers devote 20 percent of their time to projects outside their main responsibilities.
But in this difficult economy, even Google is paying more attention to costs.
Lively, Google’s entry into three-dimensional virtual worlds, was publicly unveiled last July. Four months later, when the company decided to close it, only 10,000 people had logged into the service over the previous seven days. That was well below the targets set by Google’s quarterly project review process, and far behind Second Life from Linden Lab, which had about half a million users in a similar period.
“We didn’t see that passionate hockey-stick growth in the user base,” said Bradley Horowitz, Google’s vice president for product management. Management decided that the half-dozen people working on Lively could be more productive elsewhere.
It will be interesting to see what the long term effects of these changes in perspective will be on Google's culture around launching new products out of 20% time projects and the veneration of side projects at the Googleplex. One expected change is that employees will be more conservative around what 20% projects they choose to work on so that they don't end up wasting their time on the next Google Page Creator or Google Web Accelerator which is received with initial hype but quickly discontinued because it doesn't see "hockey stick growth in user base".
You can already see this happening somewhat by looking at how many side projects are being shipped as part of Gmail labs. Checking out the list of Gmail labs offerings I see over 30 big and small features that have been added to Gmail as side projects from various individuals and teams at Google. It seems on the surface that a lot of Google employees are betting on tying their side projects to a huge, successful product like Gmail which isn't in danger of being cancelled instead of working on new projects or helping out smaller projects like Dodgeball and Jaiku which eventually got cancelled due to lack of interest.
This expectation that a new Google product will need massive adoption to justify its investment or be cancelled within four months, as was the case with Google Lively, will be a significant dampener new product launches. Reading Paul Buchheit's post on the early days of Gmail I wonder how much time he'd have invested in the project if he was told that Google would cancel the project if it's user base growth wasn't competitive with market leaders like Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail's within four months.
I suspect that the part of Google's DNA which spurs innovation from within is being killed. Then again when you look at Google's long list of acquisitions
you realize that a lot of their most successful projects outside of search including Google Maps, Blogger and YouTube were the results of acquisitions. So maybe this culture of internal innovation was already on the way out and the current economic downturn has merely sealed its fate.
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