Google's greatest hits and most spectacular misses
You know you've really made it when your name becomes a verb. But the phrase "to Google" has begun to mean more than just "search for something on the Web." It now signifies a kind of overarching ambition that's both impressive and a little scary. And when a company as large and ubiquitous Google stumbles, the whole world feels the aftershocks.
Here are five of its biggest failures, followed by five things Google got right.
[ You might also enjoy reading about Microsoft's greatest successes and failures as well! ]
Editor's note: You can see all of Google's hits and misses in living color in the accompanying image gallery.
1. The Nexus None
Remember the Google phone? Not content with populating the world with Android handsets, in January 2010 Google decided to rewrite the rules of the wireless game by offering unlocked HTC Nexus One handsets directly to consumers via the Web. One thing Google neglected to offer: Customer support. There was no way to try out the $529 handsets before buying and no one to call and ask questions during the first month it was available. Spotty connectivity and touchscreen problems added to the mess. (Also, we hear the thing was friggin' enormous.) Within four months Google bailed on its Web store experiment and went back to doing what it does best -- avoiding all human contact.
2. The China Syndrome
When Google announced a "new approach to China" in January 2010, it seemed a bold move -- rejecting the totalitarianism (and cyber spying) of the Beijing regime by refusing to censor its search results. But after a series of compromises between Google and the government, Google.cn is again live, though Chinese Netizens can only use it to search for music, products and translation services. The Great Firewall still blocks Chinese users from viewing search results on forbidden topics like Falun Gong, Beijing continues to spy on Netizens (while vigorously denying it), and Google is busy launching new business deals on the mainland. So what changed, exactly?
3. Extreme Geekitude
When you put the planet's brightest geeks in a room, you end up with some great products -- as well as stuff only a geek could love. Take Google Wave, which was supposed to revolutionize how people collaborate online but mostly just made them go "huh?" Or Google Buzz, which landed a faceplant out of the gate by automatically broadcasting the names of people its users corresponded with most often, violating their privacy in the process. Even the recent Google Plus debacle over "real names" stems from a geeky belief that people would naturally wish to be known online by the names they use in real life. When a Google product fails, it's usually because the product only makes sense to other Googlers.
4. Buying the Pharma
Did you know it's illegal to sell pharmaceutical products from foreign vendors in the US? Google did. But that still didn't stop the search giant from running ads for cheap Canadian pharmacies from 2003 to 2009, raking in billions in ad revenue. Regardless of what you think of the Big Pharma cartel (or cheap Canadian drugs), flaunting US law cost the company $500 million and caused critics like Ben Edelman to question Google's credibility across a wide range of other "mistakes." Bottom line: Google was forced to admit it knowingly violated the law for years, then lied about it afterward. Who do they think they are, the US government?
5. WiFi Spies
Want to convince the world you're not evil? Don't get caught siphoning data from people's wireless networks while taking pictures of their houses. Yet that's exactly what Google did from 2007 to 2010; while its Street View vans cruised the world's thoroughfares snapping photos, they marked the location of open WiFi networks to augment GPS navigation on mobile devices. Unfortunately the vans were also hoovering 600GB worth of user data, including passwords, emails, and URLs. Google claims the collection was unintentional and the data went unused; then again, maybe it was lying about that, too. Evil is as evil does.
Google's Greatest Hits
It's not all lying and spying in Googleland. The search/advertising giant wouldn't be the behemoth it is today if it didn't do a few things right. Like the following:
1. What's up, Docs
Google's suite of online apps -- free to educators and consumers, $50 a year for business users -- has been a boon for budget-strapped school districts and individuals. Over the years a fairly limited word processor and spreadsheet combo has grown into an impressive set of tools, including data storage, site creation, messaging and more. Better yet, G-Docs has caused Microsoft to completely rethink how it delivers software, and that's good news for everyone.
2. Howdy, Doodle
They started life as simple illustrations; now the Google Doodle has become a Web phenomenon, more creative and entertaining than any session of Angry Birds or Farmville. Cases in point: Last year's fully functional Pac Man game, and the recent animated tributes to Les Paul, Freddie Mercury, and Lucille Ball. Just what the world needs -- new ways to slack off when we should be working. This is one pointless Google project Larry Page shouldn't kill off.
3. We are all Wael Ghonim
No, Google can't take credit for the Arab Spring. But it does deserve kudos for encouraging one of its executives, Wael Ghonim, to take a leave of absence to become the face of the revolution that toppled Egypt's president-for-life-and-beyond Hosni Mubarak. Ghonim created the "We are all Khaled Saeed" Facebook page that helped spark the popular uprising. He has since left Google to work full time on ensuring that the changes he helped bring about don't get unraveled.
4. Pwning Microsoft and Apple
In the late 1990s Microsoft squashed Netscape like a bug after it tried to introduce a browser-based operating system. In the late 2000s Apple's iPhone seemed to make all other smartphones irrelevant. But that didn't stop Google from taking them both on. Starting with zero market share in September 2008, Android is now the most popular smartphone operating system in the US, besting Apple's iOS and obliterating Windows Mobile. Now Chromebooks may threaten Microsoft's hegemony over desktops and laptops. Is there anyone Google won't take on?
5. Search us
Remember when Google was simply the Web's best search engine? It still is -- and two thirds of the US Internet population agrees. Not that Google's perfect, by any stretch. Over the years the elegant simplicity of Google search has been riddled with spammy ads, skewed by personalization, polluted by "instant" results that are more annoying than helpful, and routinely gamed by SEO firms and content farms. At the same time, other search engines have gotten much better: Bing is a surprisingly nimble competitor. But when's the last time you heard anyone say "Let me Bing that and get back to you"? We still feel lucky.
This article, "Google's greatest hits and most spectacular misses," was originally published at ITworld. Read Dan Tynan's Thank You For Not Sharing blog and follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook for the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos.