4 Ways Google Failed to Change the World

Chris Hoffman 30-03-2012

“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 The Best Prepaid Cell Phones on the US Market Mobile phone contracts suck. Everyone knows it, but we accept them because often we don’t seem to have much choice. The selection of pre-paid phones is poor and off-contract phones are expensive. But perhaps you... Read More 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 5 Reasons To Choose iPhone Over Android [Opinion] If you’re considering buying your first smartphone, you’ve got a fairly big decision to make. As well as choosing a carrier, plan and minimum contract period you then have to trawl through the barrage of... Read More .

The carriers balked and Google backed down. In return, the carriers didn’t dump Android The Best Android Apps on the Google Play Store for 2019 Looking for the best Android apps for your phone or tablet? Here's our comprehensive list of the best apps for Android. Read More .

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.


4 Ways Google Failed to Change the World nexus one

Android, as great as it is 5 Reasons to Choose Android Over iPhone If you’re looking at buying a smartphone, you’re probably going to buy an Android device or an iPhone (sorry, Microsoft). What’s the difference, and which should you choose? We recently gave the pro-iPhone side of... Read More , 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.

4 Ways Google Failed to Change the World google powermeter


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.


4 Ways Google Failed to Change the World google china

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 How To Quickly Check If Your Site Is Visible Behind The Great Firewall Of China The Great Firewall of China, officially known as the Golden Shield project, uses a variety of methods to block foreign websites that the Chinese government doesn’t like. The Chinese government doesn’t publish a list of... Read More 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 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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  1. Z.B. Manfred
    April 6, 2012 at 4:37 am

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

  2. Dave Parrack
    March 31, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    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
      March 31, 2012 at 11:44 pm

      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
        April 1, 2012 at 7:17 am

        ha ha :) surprisingly they do exist.. 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"

  3. Eric Bolton
    March 31, 2012 at 11:39 am

    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
      March 31, 2012 at 11:46 pm

      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.

  4. Joel Lee
    March 30, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    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
      March 30, 2012 at 11:28 pm

      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?

  5. Madis
    March 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm

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

    • Chris Hoffman
      March 30, 2012 at 11:27 pm

      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
        March 31, 2012 at 9:48 am

        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
          March 31, 2012 at 11:39 pm

          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.

  6. Sagar
    March 30, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    These are only 4 ways Google failed, but what about 100's of other ways they succeeded in changing the world?

    • Chris Hoffman
      March 30, 2012 at 11:30 pm

      That might be a less-interesting list! Everyone knows that Google basically transformed the world through its amazing search engine -- they use it and they see the results.

      Less people know that Google wanted to give Android phones away or replace email -- they didn't work out, so people don't experience the direct effects.

  7. yossi
    March 30, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    Were they not planning an Operation System that would compete Microsoft's?

    • Chris Hoffman
      March 30, 2012 at 11:24 pm

      Yup, Chrome OS. It hasn't completely failed yet -- I hear Google is regrouping and changing a lot of things, and perhaps integrating it with Android 5.0 (Jelly Bean) somehow.

      I've written about why it will fail in the past, though: //

  8. Michael C.
    March 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    I tend to agree with Dan. If you look at history, you'll find that the most successful also have a comparable list of failures...

    • Chris Hoffman
      March 30, 2012 at 11:28 pm

      Definitely. But it's interesting to examine them!

  9. Dan
    March 30, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Now think of the long list of things that Google has been successful with... Google docs, Google Maps, Gmail, Google analytics, Google search (it's a noun for love of Pete!).. A company of this caliber can't have the successes that it has had without having some very large failures. I would love to work for a company where this level of creativity was encouraged.

    • Chris Hoffman
      March 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm

      Yup, I thought it was a very interesting list to present -- certainly there are other projects which have been shut down, but these were all big projects with lofty goals.

  10. Anuj
    March 30, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    There is a long list of products which were in Google Labs. While it is impractical to expect all products to make an impact, the amount of resources spent on them could have been better deployed in supporting products which had done well. And btw, the mess created by android was a complete disaster of googles own making.

    • Chris Hoffman
      March 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm

      I agree, to be honest. It's nice to see Google focusing a bit more, even if it's at the cost of losing more pie-in-the-sky projects.

      Yup, what happened to Android was definitely of Google's own making, though the carriers certainly had their hand in it as well.

  11. Bob
    March 30, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Well it's good to hear that you are not bitter.

    • Chris Hoffman
      March 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm

      No company will be successful in everything it does, particularly one that shoots so high.

  12. LH
    March 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    The Wave launch video was not amazing. It was amateurish and an hour and twenty minutes long. Most people will not sit through that for a product they don't really know.

    Complete failure to understand the average user is one of the reasons Wave was a flop and is still the biggest problem Google has in introducing new products.

    • Chris Hoffman
      March 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm

      Yup, Wave did fail to understand the user and paid the price for it.

      Still, lots of people thought the Google Wave video was amazing. There was huge buzz about it on the Web -- I was really excited at the time.