Microsoft was once so widely considered evil that Michael Kinsley kicked off his tenure at Microsoft’s Slate Magazine in 1996 by asking “Is Microsoft Evil?”
Nobody blinked — that’s how common the question was back then.
But Microsoft didn’t stumble because it was evil.
Yes, Microsoft’s actions and dominance made competitors angry enough to complain to regulators, who then filed antitrust cases in the U.S. and Europe. Those long legal battles were a distraction and probably made the company more timid in some areas, like how it dealt with PC makers.
There were plenty of other problems at Microsoft too: it lost a lot of key people, including a lot of engineers who left for Google in the mid-2000s. It saw opportunities like smartphones and tablets before anybody, but failed to create winning products. It spent billions trying to beat back a perceived enemy — Google — while the real threat was Apple, a company that Microsoft thought it had already beaten into submission.
But really, none of this mattered.
The reason Microsoft lost relevance is because it stopped building products that people wanted. In particular, it released an awful update to its flagship product.
Windows Vista was a disaster for the company on many levels, and it’s taken almost six years to (mostly) recover. Without going into the details, Vista was delayed multiple times, was subject to changing specs, and required state of the art hardware — all of which meant it launched without enough support from hardware makers and software developers. It also had basic quality and usability problems, which everybody noticed.
So look at Google today.
It faces a lot of the same problems that Microsoft did a decade ago — competitors are griping, regulators are circling, people are leaving (although Larry Page has done a lot to keep employees happier since he took over last spring), and it seems to have the same sort of attention deficit disorder, concentrating on a million new projects at once.
But none of that matters if Google can release products that customers love.
So here’s a serious question for Larry Page and the employees at Google: when is the last time you released a product that users absolutely loved? That they flocked to, and could not live without?
As a user, I’d have to say it was Gmail or Maps. Maybe YouTube.
Those products are at least six years old.
Android? Maybe — although the popularity of Android has more to do with its almost-free price and relative flexibility, which gave phone makers and carriers a quick way to compete with Apple’s iPhone. Even so, Android has now been around for more than three years.
Since then, Google has released a bunch of imitative, half-finished products that it’s had to beg or cajole people to use.
Google+ is like Facebook, only without your friends. Google Music is like iTunes, only without songs from one of the big labels, Warner. Google TV is like Apple TV and Roku, without the ease of use.
Now, it looks like Google’s going to release a product that’s like Dropbox, only without as much free storage, and a product that’s like Facebook Comments, only without Facebook’s huge userbase, which means we’ll all have to go to Google and sign in to use it.
That doesn’t even get into the failures like Buzz and Wave, or the company’s upcoming push into consumer electronics, which is way outside its area of expertise.
The real problem with Google turning from a search engine into a portal isn’t the “evil.”
It’s that so far, the portal isn’t very good. So far, it feels like Google is stitching together a bunch of unrelated products of different quality levels into a Frankenstein’s monster. The user benefit isn’t clear. Why do I want Google+ pages in my search results? Why do I want a link to the new Play store (for Android apps and music) in my Gmail?
Advertisers may like it, but in the end you have to keep users happy or there won’t be any advertisers.
It’s time for Google to blow us away again.
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