4 Ways Google Failed To Change The World [Opinion]

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“We celebrate our failures,” Google’s Eric Schmidt once said. Google’s had some amazing successes that have changed the world, but some of their attempts to do so have failed. With their famous “don’t be evil” mantra, they’ve sometimes been overly naive and optimistic. Here’s a list of some of Google’s big attempts to change the world that just didn’t pan out.

I’m a fan of Google’s, so I don’t mean to slam them here. We’d all be better off if these attempts to change the world had taken off instead of failing. It’s sad to see optimism crashing against hard reality.

Dethroning The Carriers With The Nexus One

Google wanted the original Nexus One to cost $99 — completely unlocked, without a contract or carrier subsidy. In 2006, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Reuters that “your phone should be free.” Google would subsidize the phones to get them into user’s hands, since mobile advertising was so profitable.

Google wanted to remake the entire cell phone industry with cheap, powerful, unlocked phones that weren’t tied to a specific carrier. Instead of the current system of “free” phones offered by carriers that lock users into contracts, Google saw users taking control back from the carriers. You’d get a cheap or free phone and use it with whatever carrier you wanted — no catches or carrier restrictions and preloaded crapware.

The carriers balked and Google backed down. In return, the carriers didn’t dump Android.

The Nexus One ultimately launched at $179 with a two year contract. You could still buy an unlocked Nexus One directly from Google, but it cost $529. People complained about Google’s support infrastructure and Google doesn’t sell phones directly anymore. While people weren’t happy with the support at $529, at $99 they would have been irresistible.

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Android, as great as it is, could have been even better. Android could have been a weapon against the carriers, but it’s been captured by them. Phones ship with various features locked down, crapware installed, updates denied forever — not the vision Google had of Android. If you’re interested in reading more about this, you should check out this post over at TechCrunch.

Reinventing Email With Google Wave

Google Wave wasn’t just another failed Google social-networking product. Google Wave was announced as something so good it would replace email — Email 2.0.

There was huge buzz over Wave. The launch video was amazing and people all over the Internet were desperate to get their hands on it. Wave combined email, instant messaging, social networking, and collaboration in new and fresh ways. It had a lot of interesting ideas and was an opportunity to improve on email, which has a lot of problems.

What happened? It’s hard to pin down the exact causes of Wave’s failure, but there were lots of problems. Wave launched with a limited user base, so people couldn’t use it with their friends. The interface was unintuitive and confusing. Performance was poor. There was also no way to interface with the legacy email system.

Organizing All The World’s Information

Google’s founding mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google has struggled with that mission and the reality of being a publicly traded company with a business model based on advertising.

Many Google products have been discontinued recently, but a few are more significant: Google Health and Google PowerMeter. It’s no coincidence that Google announced the end of both these services in the same blog post.

Google Health and Google PowerMeter took two types of information that weren’t easily accessible — health and power usage information– and made it accessible to real people. Unfortunately, Google struggled to make an impact with these projects.

As Google explained at the end of the blog post:

“Ultimately though, we want to satisfy the most pressing needs for the greatest number of people. In the case of these two products, our inability to scale has led us to focus our priorities elsewhere.“

As Google narrows its focus, long-term, idealistic products with the goal of one day organizing all the world’s information are being de-prioritized. It’s understandable, but sad.

Changing China

When Google decided to enter the Chinese market in 2006, they self-censored their search results to comply with Chinese law. Google thought that they could expand access to information in China by participating and change the country — “the Internet is transforming China for the better,” they said at the time.

Four years later, Google decided to stop censoring their search engine. They moved the Chinese-language search engine to Hong Kong, where China’s Great Firewall started to censor search results before they reached Chinese users. As they said when they stopped censoring their Chinese search results in 2010,

”We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results.”

Ultimately, Google’s attempt to engage with China didn’t result in the change they were expecting.

What do you think of these Google stumbles? Is there another big failure of Google’s I didn’t mention? Leave a comment and let us know.

Image Credit: Google Sign via Marcin WicharyNexus One via Donavon Buchanan, Google China via bfishadow

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Comments (26)
  • Z.B. Manfred

    Google also forgot not to be evil. Danger, Will Robinson, epic fail.

  • Dave Parrack

    Great opinion piece, Chris. Some people clearly haven’t got the angle you were going for. Every company has its failures. Yes, even Apple ;)

    • Chris Hoffman

      A great post idea for an Apple fan would be a list of Apple’s failures. Same thing for a Microsoft fan, if such a thing existed.

    • Simon Barnett

      ha ha :) surprisingly they do exist.. spiceworks.com being one example: where extreme tech-savvy members prefer something that’s broken out-of-the-box.. “Windows XP: hours and hours of problem-solving fun”

  • Eric Bolton

    well well well,

    Google is still Google, they are a world celebrated success story, and here you are saying you are a fan, so we shouldn’t misunderstand your intentions.

    Nothing wrong with admitting that something did not work, but what have you done? I mean, forget what didn’t work – what has worked? I don’t even see this being perhaps a call to perhaps revisit some of these obviously wonderful initiatives, and take another go at what might still be a great idea.

    Point is, this is mostly pointless. I mean, I did see this post on Google+… so much for Google failures. It’s not the phones they didn’t “give away” that counts… it’s the Google search engine,… and Google+… and Googe Maps… and Google Earth.. and GMail… and Google App Engine… and several others like it that are becoming a lifeline for us on the Web and on the go – those are the ones that count!

    And see, I counted way more than four…

    • Chris Hoffman

      That’s the point, Eric. Everyone has their failures and mistakes. It’s interesting to examine them, to see why they didn’t work.

      I am a Google fan — I use Android, Google+, Chrome, and tons of Google’s web apps on a day-to-day basis.

      I don’t see any reason to be so defensive — any company, particularly a big one, has failures. In fact, it’s a good thing Google has failures. If you’re not failing occasionally, you’re not shooting high enough.

  • Joel Lee

    A lot of commenters seem to think this article was anti-Google, but I didn’t get that vibe. I mean, directly from the article: “I’m a fan of Google’s, so I don’t mean to slam them here.”

    It seemed more like, “We all know that Google is tremendously successful, but here are ways in which they’ve shown that they’re not infallible.” In that light, well done!

    • Chris Hoffman

      Thanks, Joel! The point is to present an interesting list of things people might not know — how many people actually knew that Google wanted to practically give the Nexus One away?

  • Madis

    Google Wave was amazing. Only stupid people didn’t use it.

    • Chris Hoffman

      It was an amazing concept, but there were definitely problems. A lot of people stopped using it after they realized they couldn’t invite their friends to communicate with.

      They later relaxed the invitation policy, but the damage was already done.

      Coincidentally, this is the reason they rolled Google Buzz out to everyone at once. Of course, that failed for its own reasons!

    • Madis

      Yes, invite stuff was bad.
      Wish someone could make email client with exactly same UI, that would be awesome!

      Buzz was boring. Really boring.

    • Chris Hoffman

      If Wave had interfaced with email from the start, it might have turned out better.

      Buzz was definitely yawn-worthy. Not even worth a mention here — it certainly didn’t do anything interesting.

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Affiliate Disclamer

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For more details, please read our disclosure.
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