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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Sunday, February 15, 2009 6:08:42 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
In the headline, it's "its".

Wouldn't bother me as much if the first paragraph wasn't such a swipe at a competitor.

Interesting point that internal politics may affect choices in individual initiative, but my main takeaway is that you wanted to highlight the NYT mention of terminated projects.

Sunday, February 15, 2009 7:00:41 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I predict that after this short-termist invisible strategy takes root, and once the global confidence economy crosses zero once more into the positive excursion, then this feeling will mature into a future new Google "Not Invented Here" culture.

In other words, everything that 'survived' a cull period was 'good' and a product of a new culture, and therefore outside evolution isn't to be trusted.

The result of that will be, as per usual, a lot of forthcoming wheel re-inventing. Maybe a new browser here, a new operating system there, before you know it, a whole new media too.
Sunday, February 15, 2009 8:40:30 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
When you are running a lot of little experiments, it's easy to imagine a lot of energy wandering off into a lot of little dead-ends. Tweaking the "when to kill a project" dial might be part of the process of experimentation.

Another thought: the smart people at Google having read Christensen might calculate that that if their 20% time energy shifts to incrementally innovating their existing product set a) they might get a higher number of smaller wins and b) any increased risk of being sideswiped by something new might be acceptable given fewer external threats in the current economic climate.
Sunday, February 15, 2009 10:51:19 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Which acquisition do you relate to Google Maps? If you're thinking of Keyhole, it has more to do with Google Earth.
Sunday, February 15, 2009 11:09:51 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Lively was a joke--I don't think it is a knock on Google's desire for innovation that they finally cut their losses. The more interesting question in my mind is actually whether Google is really innovating in search.
Sunday, February 15, 2009 11:21:55 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
you use the wrong "it's" in your headline.
grammar guy
Monday, February 16, 2009 2:33:34 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Pretty interesting thoughts.
Although in the long run it seems they should be more up front about figuring out what will work (or at least has a reasonable shot) rather than just cutting the stuff that doesn't have "hockey stick" growth.
For instance, I can't imagine why they built Lively to begin with.

On the other hand, MS could use a bit more flexibility for employees to bring ideas forward.
But thinking about the business model before investing in building something seems like common sense to me.
Brad [MSFT]
Monday, February 16, 2009 4:11:28 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
In my experience, Google hasn't stopped its innovation or focus on 20% projects, especially interesting ones that explore unusual ideas.
Monday, February 16, 2009 7:13:24 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)

IIRC, Google Maps was an acquisition, which was separate to the acquisition of Keyhole. See list of Google acquisitions at Wikipedia.
Monday, February 16, 2009 4:07:03 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
It will be interesting to see what the long term effects of [pulling the plug on these products] 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 ...
My guess is that pulling the plug on dead-end products will have little effect on culture. Once the initial shock subsides, the change may even be liberating. After all, what is more soul-draining to an engineer, to work on a project that is killed, or to be bound to a project that lives on but has little hope of success?
Monday, February 16, 2009 8:14:07 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
It's easy for the grammar Nazi to jump in to point out errors, without realizing that blogging is not easy.
Excellent post btw!
Tuesday, February 17, 2009 11:39:18 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
not even google is immune to recession, tho I am sure they are in a better position than most. a lot their time was wasted on unviable projects, perhaps they are just wising up a bit
Thursday, February 19, 2009 3:46:30 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Lively was in private NDA-laden beta for months, and developed for months before that, so it was more than 4 months, really (I know, 4 public months).on top of that, it was just bad. I was a tester; it was slow and not cross-platform, andI found little to no reason to use it, even for fun: it was boring and not very social, and it was buggy. I don't know how it was ever greenlighted in the first place.
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