The danger of Google's development cadence

Google indicated at this week's I/O conference that it's going to implement a six-week cadence, or advancement cycle, for Google Play. It's not a huge surprise, as 93% of Google Play users are already on this cadence, but it means Google will materially change its products far faster than anyone else has ever attempted.

This goes to the old belief that if you can get out in front and run faster than anyone else, you can't be caught. It also points to a potential problem: Head in the wrong direction - and Google is known for not listening to customers, partners or, for that matter, governments - and you could be far off course before you're able to change direction. This makes this strategy more risky than advantageous. In addition, folks don't like change. Windows XP is more than a decade old and largely obsolete, but users still embrace it like a lifesaver after their ship capsizes in stormy seas.

[ News: Google I/O Condensed: The 33 Most Important Things to Know ]

This is a good example of why engineers alone shouldn't set policy. Mathematically, this strategy looks brilliant. Take into account human behavior, though, and it looks suicidal. That's not to say it can't work - but, without the proper controls, it almost certainly won't work.

Don't Go Fast Until You Know Where You're Going

One of my first formal classes in competitive analysis always stuck with me. The instructor drew a typical X/Y chart, with speed increasing to the right and direction represented by altitude. The faster a company went, and the more correct its direction, the higher and farther to the right its point on the graph.

The instructor pointed out that virtually all companies focus on speed first, and then direction, before making a major mistake. This is like sprinting as fast as you can without knowing the distance or topography of a road race. There are an infinite number of directions, but only a few right ones. You're certain to be running full speed in the wrong direction unless you first focus on direction.

What's Right Can Be What's Popular

There's a detailed list going around of the number of times Google has acted against the best interests of its customers, with a government body often taking punitive action as a result. Google could easily avoid the vast majority of these problems by taking a bit more time to think about the rights it would like to preserve for itself. One in particular stands out: The European Union ruling that people have the right to be forgotten, to delete information that presents them in an unreasonably bad light.

Back in 2005, Google blacklisted CNET after the news site published personal information obtained from a simple Google search on then-President Eric Schmidt. That means Google executives knew nine years ago the information being provided in Google search results was excessive - but while they aggressively protected themselves, they didn't move to protect users until ordered to do so by the EU. Google clearly knew that users wanted what the EU was demanding, because its own leaders wanted it, too, but the firm had to be forced to do the right thing.

[ Commentary: Google's Invasions of Privacy, Free But Flawed Products Show Arrogance ]

Both the existence of the list and its size suggest that Google tends to start running without making sure it's going the right way. This also helps explain Google, despite significant increases to its product portfolio, still makes most of its money from the same sources it did a decade ago.

Given that Google is a big data company, it should step back and make sure it has in place a mechanism to assure that it's moving in the right direction for users and customers before focusing on increasing its cadence. Otherwise, that list will explode - and Google could suddenly have a large number of concurrent government events on its hands like the ones that crippled IBM and Microsoft and took down Standard Oil, RCA, AT&T and Enron.

Always assure direction before you focus on speed. Otherwise you'll put a ton of effort into creating problems at a rate you can't possibly deal with.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

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This story, "The danger of Google's development cadence" was originally published by CIO.

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