Google’s innovation imbalance

Google may ultimately be the first really bad example of how not to treat SaaS customers.

Stephen O'Grady, RedMonk analyst and--sadly--unrepentant Red Sox fan, has posted a great summary of what he thinks Google should be worried about concerning Android.

O'Grady, as usual, hits the right notes in his discussion of issues that are concerning him: handset clustering, fragmentation, patent issues, and tablet application volume (or lack thereof). And really there's nothing I would change about his arguments.

But there is something I could add, at least anecdotally. It's sort of a meta-issue, with causes that tie directly into the issues mentioned above: this growing, nagging sense that Android, and by extension Google, doesn't give a damn about me as an Android user.

It's no one thing that's leading me to this emotional realization, but the uneasiness is become more and more focused as time goes on.

Last week's striking infographic from Matthew DeGusta, for instance, which depicts a striking problem in fragmentation amongst Android handsets, is one way my concerns have been crystalized. All this time I have been using my own Android handset and comparing it to the other models I have seen in the phone store, I have come away with a vague sense of unhappiness. But nothing really concrete, until I saw that DeGusta's graphic and my inner Ruk screamed "That was the equation!"

Things like that.

It's become a bit more pointed lately, too, having to update the various Apple devices in the family to iOS 5. In my two years of ownership of this particular phone, I have updated the operating system once, and that was a while ago. We have had Apple devices in the home for a little over a year, and there have been two major updates, and all of my Apple devices are up to date on the software.

I am not the only one that appears to be having this vague sense of concern. Microsoft has noticed it, and has been leveling a nasty little marketing meme about the rising occupancy rate in Google's graveyard.

Those who are familiar with Google will be quick to smell the barnyard odor around this kind of attack: Google has always had an environment that encouraged a more open innovative approach. So it's natural that some products are going to be attempted and may ultimately fail. Microsoft is just trying to leverage more fear against a competitor.

But that fear may be grounded in a bit of reality. Over a long period of time, this kind of innovative approach can be grating for power users like me who like all of their tech toys nicely aligned and stable and downright abhorrent to business users who must have stable tools.

At the end of the day, innovation is great, but consistency isn't such a bad thing, either. Right now, the take away from anyone who works with Google products is that a service will only be supported as long as Google thinks there's enough eyeballs looking at that service.

Which ultimately believes me to think that Google is only looking after Google.

Let's not kid ourselves: Microsoft, Apple, Red Hat, Canonical… any for-profit organization, at the end of the day, can easily be assigned that trait as well. This is not some sort of "hey, Proffitt just figured out capitalism" realization.

No, the issue here is a growing sense of unease towards the cloud, specifically the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. Sure, commercial vendors will always have their own interests at heart. But with SaaS, they actually can screw me a lot worse.

For example: I have a large-ish (by my standards) comic book collection--about 5,000 books. To track that, I have been using ComicBase, an application from a small operation known as Human Computing. There's no Linux version, so I have to go to a lot of trouble to use it, keeping a Windows VM around for it and a few other apps. There are, naturally, cloud-based tracking solutions I could use for this same purpose… solutions that would let me track my software on a native Linux browser. But I don't want to.

My reason is simple: if Human Computing were to go out of business tomorrow (which I am certainly not wishing on them), I would still have my database and the application. It would get progressively older and less-feature-y if new applications (local and SaaS) were released, but it would not matter because the data would still be mine. On my computer. In my house.

Contrast that with what would happen if ComicBase were SaaS-based: if the company went out of business, I might find my data completely gone. Or they might give me a chance to get it, but I might or might not be able to use it anywhere else.

This is why I go through the hassle of maintaining local data on my own systems. I want it with me. Sure, there's a risk of losing the data in a systems crash or software bork. But it's my risk to take.

This is not a new argument against SaaS and cloud. What's new to me is my ever-increasing sense that Google may ultimately be the first really bad example of how not to treat SaaS customers. Hence my growing unease with Android and agreement with all the problems O'Grady points out.

I think Google might be better served by letting customers like me know that it's in the business of helping users like me, rather than test-marketing new ideas for the sake of more ad clicks.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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