Buzz launch wasn’t flawed, Google’s intentions are

Last week Google exposed private aspects of Gmail accounts by default in its introduction of Buzz and then backtracked to offer what can only be described as user-hostile instructions to remedy it. Even the generally knowledgeable analysts are being naive about how this could have happened:

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Google is a $170 billion company. It employs thousands of engineers and developers. It tests, tests, tests, and tests more. In fact, its “designers” once unable to pick a shade of blue tested 41 variations of it. It’s ludicrous to think that the Buzz fiasco was simply a result of under-testing. Indeed, it was not an implementation snafu at all, as often described. It was a reflection of the strategy with which Google has decided to capture the enormous territory left up for grabs by the decline of Microsoft.

Not how but why

As mentioned in Google Buzz: The Big Misdirection, Google introduced Wave last year in its much abused “beta” form to a yawning public. After much hoopla prior to its introduction, Wave has virtually disappeared from public interest:

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Wave remains an over-engineered and under-designed product that was poorly prepped for general introduction beyond a small developer base, which has become an all-too-familiar Google ritual. This tweet cleverly captures what unites Wave with Buzz:

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Google clearly feels pressure from Facebook and Twitter in terms of social networking, personal data access and real-time search, as well as location info from myriad geo-apps and smartphones. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been able to deliver products that have captured the imagination of broad segments of the consumer market lately. From Nexus One to Latitude to Talk, Google is in danger of being relegated to servicing geeks.

Unsure of its ability to successfully roll it out as an independent product, Google must have then decided to force feed Buzz through its Gmail user base of 175 million. Google executives likely reckoned that in a single day Buzz would garner more users than Twitter has been able to in two years after all that celebrity publicity. That really is why Gmail users woke up one day to find their private account details exposed to the public, unannounced and unprepared, because without such default exposure Google executives likely didn’t believe they could deliver a critical user base for Buzz. That’s not “improper testing,” it’s a platform strategy. And the fact that Google reacted quickly to public pressure doesn’t negate the fact that its arrogance was thoroughly exposed. The correction isn’t significant, the exposed intentions are.

Why would they do that?

Microsoft became the largest technology company in the world primarily by leveraging its two widely used platforms to enter into new product areas. But having missed search, advertising, online services, digital media, smartphones and a host of other 21st century phenomena, Microsoft is in slow and steady retreat from most of the lucrative new consumer markets.

The only other company that can fill this evolving void is Apple, but Apple is not interested in commodity businesses. Google sees a great opportunity and has decided to pursue it, mostly by imitating Microsoft’s leverage strategy: if you want free mail, you (also must) get social traffic (because we need your personal network data graph). You’re welcome, enjoy your Buzz!

This leverage strategy can indeed let Google harvest more social territory, at the expense of Facebook and Twitter…but only for a time. Eventually, what Microsoft is going through now is what will happen to Google, even if Google thinks it’s immune to Microsoftdom.

Ugly mutation

Google has a tradition of experimentation. It routinely introduces products and features, tests their viability and culls under-performers. Such speed and mutative variation may be seen as a competitive edge: release early and release often.

Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice-president for search and user experience, says 60-80% of Google’s products may eventually fail. Unfortunately, the few that survive are neither all that inspiring nor market leaders. What Google lacks is not infrastructure, engineers, money, time or even great ideas. It’s the ability to delight users. What Google is missing, in other words, is strategic design.

Can they handle the truth?

What’s urgently needed at Mountain View are senior strategic designers with sufficient experience, clout and guts, empowered to stand up to geeky top management, MBA-driven product guys (Jonathan Rosenberg), left-brained quality assurers (Marissa Mayer), Microsoft-bred (Vic Gundotra) and countless other dominating engineer-managers to boldly demonstrate why pulling a trick like Buzz is short-sighted for Google’s long(er) term business interests.

Let’s not mince words: Google is not very good at design. The cacophony of its recent designs in Wave and Buzz are proof positive that Google’s single most valuable contribution to strategic design, its sparse search page, is but a distant memory now. Welcome to the Microsoft Ribbon-land.

For a public that doesn’t even know what a web browser is, what Gmail lacked was not a bolted-on Buzz that further complicates what’s already a poorly designed email reader. What’s needed is not a knee-jerk reaction to Facebook and Twitter that would make Microsoft proud, but a fundamental rethinking of the presentation of Google’s sole cash cow: search. In 2010, the design quality of its search results is a disgrace for a company as ambitious as Google.

Google needs to think deeper

It’s become fashionable among geeks to paint Apple “evil” for its steady control of the user experience. Google pretends to be the champion of the “open” web, but it surely is not, as explained in The Big Misdirection. Apple has no pretense at “openness” but, unlike Google, it thinks deeper when designing its products.

In its urgency to offer a me-too product, Buzz confuses the read/unread email paradigm with real-time messaging stream like Twitter. It adds insult to injury by co-mingling various cognitive spheres like blogs, photos, videos, status, etc into thin soup delivered through an unceasing firehose. The final blow is the embarrassingly unfocused layout: the complete absence of visual hierarchy and progressive disclosure, overabundance of visual cues/links for action, and clumsiness in using white space to strip away meaningful information density.

I’m sure Google executives don’t think these are critical, as long as Buzz is free and can be leveraged through Google’s other widely used properties. If Buzz was a startup product, it would have died shortly. But when you expose it by default to 175 million users, who needs to worry about design and delighting users!

If this takes you back to the ’90s, to a place called Redmond, you’re not alone. Buzz wasn’t an accident. Get used to it.

79 thoughts on “Buzz launch wasn’t flawed, Google’s intentions are

  1. I agree that the Buzz auto-opt-in was horrendous. I don’t understand why Gmail in particular is supposed to be so horrifically designed. Is design about appearance? Unless I missed it, nobody has actually pointed to this or that element, said why it’s bad and what the revised design should look like. I can do what I want to do with Gmail pretty easily, with one major exception: searching gmail itself can yield a maximum of only 20 emails in the search results (as opposed to 100 emails in the IN box). I don’t understand this limitation or what it hasn’t been repaired despite complaints on Google discussion boards and elsewhere. It makes search more tedious than it needs to be. For quick scanning of headers, I’d like the ability to list as many 500 or 1000 email headers in one fell swoop, whether it’s the IN box, Spam box, Sent box or Search results. Would this be called a design problem?

  2. Kontra, you continue to illuminate things. Thank you.

    I’m generalising here but the Google boys, Brin and Page are geeks at heart I think. Geeks have little time (as in a short attention span) for social awareness issues and are prone to endless threads of unintended consequences from their under-cooked inventions. Geeks also tend to think they’ve (collectively) ‘got it’, which equates to a naive belief in infallibility and that they don’t need any kind of independent (i.e. non-peer) review for a validation of their ideas. As a result, they often fail, or struggle, to get it in fact. Schmidt aside, there is a ‘geeks rule’ culture at Google that thinks itself cool, correct and and non-accountable. Part of that Koolness Aid is to play life like a game and not worry too much about consequences, quality, or mundane things like UI or UX. But these care-free geeks are being pressured now by market forces to ‘get commercial'; to deliver more; to protect their core franchise by moving in on anyone who seems to have cracked the art of signing us all up as docile ad-reader fodder, and so it goes. But it is all about money after all, especially post-IPO. What’s a poor care-free geek to do? Getting some robust professional discipline is as much of a challenge as finding true religious understanding is for the rest of us. It’s not easy to do ‘humble’ and ‘socially aware’ when you’re so full of cool. Real progress will depend on some culture change.

    Print media are risking losing it all because they learned to love advertisers too much and to care less and less about the reader. In an age when information is becoming easier to access, those same readers will discover that they can help themselves, easily, in a more timely manner, in greater detail, at a lesser cost and all without the condescension of publishers treating them as an irritating after-thought. Publishers have done this to themselves and to their readers over such a long time, no one noticed that the true patron was serially demoted to a position of little import. I noticed this in the 80s and stopped buying newspapers. I’m sure many others did the same. You cannot take the punter for granted for long nowadays.

    And so Google does expose itself to real competition risks when it acts in ways that might alienate its fans. It is so easy to change to another search engine, even a lesser one, if you feel you or your privacy are being abused. I mean even sheep can be contrary sometimes.

    Is it reasonable to draw a kind of parallel here, just to shoot the breeze as it were? Apple was founded by two Steves. One was a geek. Woz was a tech genius of less is more, using a few chips to achieve amazing results etc. He remains a geek but one who ignores his talents today, it seems. The other Steve was geeky but never a true geek. Rather, he was a man obsessed by a vision of user-centric computing and blessed, thankfully, with a manic drive to make it so. Which one has served the company best over the last 30+ years? Apple has changed the world. Seasoned Apple users know how great that journey has been and how much Jobs and Apple have done for them as users and increasingly today, as consumers. It is about perceived intentions. Google may choose to emulate MS and use its patrons. Apple is set on innovation, quality of execution and user-centricity. And as Tim Cook recently said spreading some ‘joy and delight’, customer by customer.

    Moving on, you say that Apple does not care for commodity businesses… You said:
    ‘The only other company that can fill this evolving void is Apple, but Apple is not interested in commodity businesses.’

    But hasn’t Apple done a lot to commoditise many markets?

    By differentiating itself from every Windows PC maker, in ways they simply cannot emulate, it has rendered its competitors’ offerings into mere commodities. OK that is avoidance of self-commoditisation, I’ll agree.

    But Apple has also shown that, while a specific song is not fungible, it can be sold by anyone, like a commodity. In the process it took the major channel of distribution for itself. The same applies, either today or very soon now, to Shows, Movies, News, Books, Magazines and more. They are made by the many, but anyone can sell them, as if they were commodities. You used to be able to swap your media freely in their pre-commodity days; as in ‘I’ll give you my complete collection of Road and Track mags in exchange for your first edition copy of Pride and Prejudice. I digress, but isn’t digital distribution effectively (if not literally) rendering consumable media into freely marketable commodities? Apple’s difference is that they like to be supplier of choice. All of which is to say that does have a growing taste for monopolising the commoditisation of popular media.

    If my foregoing reasoning is sound, there is a strong case for Apple to enter Search ASAP. Information is becoming a commodity, especially the news, which is created by circumstances and so, owned by no one. The reportage may be copyrightable, but the event being reported cannot be, surely? People have a growing appetite for information and it’s likely to be an insatiable one, the way things are going.

    Apple would be seriously remiss in their strategic thinking to dismiss any interest in Search. This is, very likely, the only enduring killer app. Ultimately hardware and software are merely the means towards getting a result. It is the quality of assistance towards getting that result which matters. That functionality comes from Search alone. Information may be a commodity but the service that gets you to a useful result is wide open to differentiation: by ease of use, by scope and depth of data mining, by quality of filtering, by speed of operation, by quality and relevance of results etc. Many of the qualitative terms I’ve used in that last sentence are a significant part of Apple’s DNA, the part that covers executing well.

    Apple have had a decade to look at search. I cannot imagine they failed to appreciate its significance. Professional Search could propel Apple to double or triple its market value.

    Best

    Chandra Coomaraswamy

    • Unless Apple can invent a way of doing search without having to spend half a decade and billions in R&D and implementation costs, it would be difficult to convince Jobs, the board and the rest of the company, let alone Wall Street, of the value proposition.

      Now, remember, dedicated apps (like on iPhone/iPad) are one of the ways to deliver info/data without the user resorting to conventional search. Also, it looks like Apple will indeed get into advertising without having to have a search platform.

    • Thanks for replying.
      Based on probabilities, I do accept what you say but Apple has the most of the resources needed and good reason to proceed. Their $B investment in the NC server farm is likely intended to service the anticipated surge in traffic from 3 stores and more besides. But there must be huge surplus capacity there.
      I believe that it was Page and possibly Brin too, who developed Google’s sharply focused search algorithms while they were students, and long before their IPO. They had little money then. They had not even realised the huge monetising connection potential between search and ads at that stage. Yet, even before the IPO, they were becoming a household name in search. It was that good and that fast, as I well remember.
      10 years or so later, search algorithms are widely studied and far better understood. The research needed to define and refine new algorithms must be relatively small change in investment terms, for Apple. I don’t underestimate the challenge of building something that matches Google search as it is today. But I believe it is doable and that it is a candidate as a future core service component for Apple. Because search is core internet functionality even now and a necessity for the time when half the world’s population or more get themselves online. At Apple’s corporate level, 4th largest US corporation by market capitalisation recently, I see the lack of branded search tools as a commercial pressure point of failure to serve, by omission, if ignored. I see it as a corporate stature issue at Apple’s level as in ‘How could they NOT be in search?’ Apple has dabbled with search for 15+ years going back even earlier than Sherlock, when the ‘net was a minority interest phenomenon.
      I feel strongly about Apple entering search as I am convinced that this is the lowest common denominator for 99+% of Internet use. It’s so fundamental to use of the ‘net that we rarely think of it consciously. Yet it is the recurring tool that most people begin their surfing with and return to umpteen times during a single session, multiplied by the number of sessions each day. That’s why I call search ‘the’ killer app on the ‘net. Leaving the ad sales potential to one side, which I agree Apple is not madly interested in, search allows Apple to serve its fastest growing customer group, people who surf and compute on the move. The iPad will only accelerate the growth of this type of customer since it is designed to connect every which way….i.e. by any means.
      I’m content to see what happens over the next 5 years. I may be wrong. I hope not!

      Best

      CC

    • “We say no to good ideas every day so that the company can keep its focus on a small number of areas” Tim Cook Apple COO http://bit.ly/a4TvFn at Goldman Sachs Technology & Internet Conference in San Francisco on 22 Feb 2010. Personally, I don’t think your idea of Apple as a search company is viable because it doesn’t have a revenue stream and would require Apple to put significantly large resources into advertising which is a revenue unstable and changeable market. Apple is a hardware and software integration company with a newly refined focus on mobile markets. They bought Quattro Wireless because Apple tries to create closed ecosystems. Quattro fits nicely into their mobile device ecosystem. Generalised search with adword like advertising IMO would not fit into their mobile device ecosystem focus.

    • Based on probabilities, I do agree. But Apple has a long history of providing complex, high investment, software that it has no profound interest in. It either gives it away with hardware purchases (iLife), or offers it (the Studio ranges), at uncommercial low prices, as a means of selling its hardware into high visibility, high spend markets like Hollywood (film and video) and music production.
      The spin off from search, done Apple’s way, would be increased customer interest leading to greater sales of devices, not the ad market. There are other ways to bag that goose, as Kontra has already inferred.

  3. I still don’t get what all the hullabaloo is about with regard to negative reactions to Buzz. I’d much rather have it be incorporated into gmail because it makes it simpler and easier to use since I already have my email open. As soon as Buzz showed up in my account, I went through a few steps to configure it, and I didn’t see anything that was invasive to my privacy. What was the problem?

    • The problem is that they signed us all up and distributed information about us and our ‘friends’ without asking us first. If this had been completely and totally opt-in, I would have had no problem with it. However, they would have had, at least initially, an infinitesimally smaller social network than they were hoping for. Facebook would have laughed at them. Certainly initially. Probably forever.

    • I don’t have any problem with being opted in since any app they make is basically already accessible if you have a Google account. The only difference being this time it’s only accessible through an existing application, Gmail, as opposed to a direct URL.
      As for the distribution of information, was it the ability to see who you followed and who followed you before the option to not display that list to the public?

    • Yes! I didn’t personally mind the people they connected me to. But, Google should have asked me before any connections in either direction occurred. At another time in my life it would have caused a great amount of grief for me and a number of other parties.

      Apparently there are plenty of people where this has occurred, and probably is still occurring. I’m just glad that it’s only an issue of principle for me now and not a large amount of tangible problems.

  4. If that is Google’s idea of open source testing I have to laugh. Who is their idiot GC these days that allows them to just launch an app that has massive privacy implications — including mining the private data of minors who parents have carefully screened what is published about them but thought it was okay for an 11 year old to have a Gmail account. Can you say COPPA violation? 2 lawsuits in 2 days aren’t the end of it, that’s for sure.

  5. I agree with Jon and question if the author has really used gmail or Buzz.

    My network of Buzz/Twitter/Facebook friends aren’t experiencing the flaw in Google’s intentions, and to the contrary, are using Buzz (despite beta issues) more and more.

    • For the record, I have had several accounts on Gmail for several years, including all the correspondence of this site. I have also used Buzz (did I have a choice initially?), before turning it off like many others. I don’t use Windows or Outlook or HotMail or Yahoo Mail. Obviously this site doesn’t have any ads and neither am I on payola from Microsoft or anybody else.

      And, by the way, Buzz was not introduced as and currently is not a beta product.

  6. Developer testing is generally unreliable and short-sighted. Buzz has opened a greater plurality of use-cases than almost any other Google product. Google has also made similar mistakes in the past (example: Reader subscription lists being always public).

    Having smart developers who come up with clever algorithms does not imply the presence of good testers or PM’s who can come up with the use-cases that give Google problems.

  7. Has anyone here actually used Buzz other than for an initial peek? I’ve been on Buzz since launch day and it is a better alternative to Twitter, which I have used for years. It also has the potential to become a better site than Facebook.

    The author shows ignorance when writing that Gmail is a poorly designed email app. Everyone I know who has given Gmail a serious look has chosen to stay with Gmail over Outlook (and Hotmail, Yahoo, etc.).

    The auto-follow should not have happened but Google corrected the problem quickly. Most pundits believe that Google will overcome the 24-48 hours of bad press. Many of the writers running with this story work for publications or sites that rely heavily on Microsoft advertising (PC World is a prime example). Google does not advertise in these publications.

    • There are a few reasons why Gmail became as popular as it is:

      1) Offering 1 Gig of space at a time when Yahoo and Hotmail were charging for usage over 10MB (and deleting mail at the same time)

      2) The whole “you can only get a GMail account by invite” thing, which was a brilliant advertising gimmick. As soon as someone would get an account, they would go around distributing their 100 invites to nearly everyone they knew

      3) It cemented its spot by becoming the defacto “Google Account” before there was a Google Account, inviting blogspot and Youtube users into the fold

  8. My opinion:

    Buzz was launched in a rush because they realised that Wave wasn’t working. Great technology launched with an almighty fanfare, but nobody was able to find their friends! Why? Because Google had no social networking capability. Millions of dollars invested in Wave, which is pretty cool, but then during beta testing nobody was using it. I would sit there waiting to wave and nobody was around. I had to use Twitter & Facebook to find out which of my friends had been granted a Wave account. I still don’t use it.

    Really, really badly thought out.

    So – what happened next? Google realised this and pushed Buzz through in a rush. I reckon Buzz was already on the radar, but when Google realised that Wave was making them look stupid, they had to push Buzz through far too quickly, hence the mistakes.

    A fiasco….

    • i.e. Google realised that people needed some Google-based social networking capability (Buzz) in order to get them to start using Wave…

  9. “In 2010, the design quality of its search results is a disgrace for a company as ambitious as Google.”

    The fact that Microsoft Bing has actually been getting comparatively good reviews says all you need to know about how much Google is sucking.

    Boy, Google must have really pissed you off, Kontra. You haven’t posted this frequently in a long time.

  10. Interesting that you consider GMail a poorly designed email reader. I must ask then what according to you is the best designed email reader.

  11. You’ve nailed it, and given me pause to consider getting rid of my gmail account if this is where they’re going. I have a webmail account on my own server anyway. If I remember, I signed up for gmail because it was cool. After, Buzz, not so.

    • I was just going to link this blog post from Bowman. It seems that Google tried hiring a top notch designer, but ran him out the door because of their ‘engineer thinking’ within the company. Seems like they don’t take design too seriously, which is pretty frustrating considering how many people use their products.

    • I’d love to be wrong, but I doubt very much Bowman was hired for and given responsibility over anything but visual as opposed to strategic design.

    • The lack of design is really obvious in their Android docs for developers. Go have a look for the section on User Interface and how to design one for your Android app. It’s 2 pages with a few simple examples.

      Now go to the iPhone docs for developers and look under interface. I stopped counting after 100 pages. Apple goes into great detail with hundreds of example images and ideas for interfacing with your new app. Even if you had _no_ idea about UI you could blindly follow a Apple UI recipe for your new app and get it to look great and actually work well for users.

      The difference is really striking and shows why many reviewers say iPhone apps are higher quality than similar Android ones. All engineering and no thought to useability

  12. There’s a lot in this article that I’ve been saying for years.

    While Google search, maps, etc. have an element of use to me, it took a company like Apple to create a mobile device that made certain Google properties a “must have.” For example, the execution of the maps app on the iPhone took something that was good and made it great…and in fact it is my de facto search tool when on the go since I’m generally using it to find something location based.

    Also, I’ve written before that while Apple is blamed for it’s “walled” systems, what people fail to see in Google is that they have a similar structure, except I see theirs as chains. Google knows who you email, who emails you, what you search, what you buy, where you go, where you want to go, who you call, who calls you…now they want to know who your friends and family are and somehow tie all that data into some mathematical formula to sell you something…and it is all “open” as long as you realize that everything is stored by them and stems from them. Now they want me to run their browser and their computing/phone OS and browse the web through their pipes. And Apple is the bad guy?

    I’ve never been a Gmail convert and never really gotten past their need to read my mail to serve me ads…and simply putting some social networking varnish on top of what is essentially a behavioral marketing tool…doesn’t give me any confidence in their future plans.

    The most compelling tools I see coming from Google are not actually from Google…but from other people who have figured out how to leverage what Google has into a useful mashable tool…and when Google sees something they like they just buy it and then proceed to screw it up.

  13. I’m no fan of the Google, but you can’t have it both ways. The start off by claiming Google is all powerful, crossing every t and dotting every i so that what they release is what they wanted to release. Then, in the next paragraph, you talk about how under engineered and poorly thought out Wave was.

    Either Google is malicious or it was thoughtless, but not both.

    • If you’re referring to my piece, I said Google Wave was over-engineered and under-designed, the opposite of what you’re claiming.

  14. The question I keep asking is whether the buzz fiasco was unintended consequences or collateral damage. Either way is not a pretty picture of the company culture.

  15. In my close personal experience of Google, I would add a couple of things. There is a desire verging on desperation inside the company to diversify the revenue base. They are acutely aware that they could become undone very easily – ‘something else is just a click away’ is a regularly heard mantra. This underlying element contributes to much of what you mention.

    Secondly they do test as is noted but they are such a bunch of geeks that they simply cannot see things like a regular Joe or Josephine. When I used to raise issues of UI or implementation, there was too often a reply of ‘yes but you can…”. No, no, no. I don’t want a work around. I want it to work like 90% of people would first expect.

  16. While I am not as sure the Buzz release was an arrogantly calculated plot I agree totally about Google’s lack of design skills. I am more inclined to think that Google’s Buzz problem is somewhat like a Aspergers afflicted kid relating to regular people. Much of the fallout is just a mystery to them because they just could not relate to the complaints. The fact that their user testing was on their internal population of mostly engineers would explain a lot.

    Google’s mindset seems to be all from the engineering perspective. They have not a clue about presentation, graphic design, marketing or even user experience. They seem to be totally driven by the idea that if something does something really cool that is enough. The subtleties of Apple’s exhaustively designed user experience and marketing methods must be a enigma.

    That being said, I love my Gmail/Google Calendar/Docs, but more in spite of their lack of design than because of it.

    BTW I tried Bing yesterday, and I am almost ashamed to say I like it. A lot.

  17. “why Google didn’t bother to test this and release this properly” — “It’s ludicrous to think that the Buzz fiasco was simply a result of under-testing.”

    He’s not technically wrong: he didn’t say *under* test, but lack of *proper* testing. Testing an airplane cockpit design with 1 million blind people is not a *proper* test, but it’s not really “under-testing”, either.

    The truth is probably akin to New Coke — it’s not like Coca Cola didn’t have the resources to do testing (and in fact that was one of the stated reasons for introducing New Coke!). As they said back in 1985, “We’re not that dumb, and we’re not that smart”.

    • Maybe one day you can convince me that thousands of “smart” people at Google didn’t know that exposing private email account details by default was not a good idea, but that day hasn’t arrived yet. :) This needs no testing whatsoever!

    • Well, one thing to consider (and this cuts the heart of why it’s never best to test in a monoculture). Internally, Google has a very “flat” information policy. Basically, once you’re inside, you have access to a vast amount of information. The internal culture is all about sharing as much information as possible, to as many people as possible.

      This is reflected in the first part of Google’s mission statement: “Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Note the “universally accessible” bit – and they live that internally.

      If you begin from that perspective, and are immersed in that culture 24/7… why would you think that anyone would have a problem with people being able to email you?

      Google is a culture of engineers, and, from what I hear, skills other than engineering are not really regarded highly. If you’re an expert in, say, how people interact socially online you’re not going to be listened to. (As an aside, I’ve heard that this was literally true in one social project – an outside expert in social stuff was brought in, gave advice, and it was promptly ignored in favour of a more engineering-driven solution.)

    • Do you have any reason to believe that “thousands” of people at Google even knew what Buzz was before it was released?

      When I took a tour of Google, I saw a product team of 6 or 7, and was told it was one of the bigger teams there. And everything was fairly compartmentalized: they didn’t even use Chrome, for example. (Not in the “you’re not allowed to look” sense, but in the “we’re so busy working on our own thing we’re not going to seek out other pre-release projects” sense.)

      Based on what I’ve seen, from the people I know who work there, I’d figure that a few programmers, a couple graphic designers, several translators, and a few testers saw part or all of it before it was released. Maybe tens of people, if you’re generous.

      Do I believe that 10 programmers and designers, whose job it is to push social media, could convince themselves and each other that auto-joining their new social network would be a good idea? Yes, definitely.

    • Well, Nexus One development was isolated. To a large degree so was Android. A version of Android was kept from “normal” developers while it was given to key “partners”. Google Wave development was done in Australia in secrecy. And so on. Perhaps you’re thinking of the “old” Google. :)

    • I’ve read in several places this week that Buzz was in fact tested internally by “thousands” of Googlers. I think that a Google person advanced it to signal that the product was tested but only internally to quell the accusation that it was launched without any testing at all.

      Once again, you do not need to test opt-out for security/privacy at the most fundamental level, period.

  18. …and clumsiness in using white space to strip away meaningful information density.

    I’m reminded of this gem from Google’s director of user experience, Irene Au: “A lot of designers want to increase the line height or padding in order to make the interface ‘breathe.’ We deliberately don’t do that. We want to squeeze in as much information as possible above the fold.”

    So in Google’s eyes, cramming as much crap as possible into every square inch is an act of generosity to its users, because information density is the purest measure of usability. Apparently.

  19. In fact, its “designers” once unable to pick a shade of blue

    whoa!! google actually has designers? wouldn’t have guessed by looking at their products.

  20. Interesting take on Google’s actions here, and it sounds pretty plausible. I’d take issue with two items. Google is a lot more open than its competitors and Gmail and Calendar aren’t that hard to use.

    I signed up for Yahoo groups recently after a long time away from Google. As part of that, I had to sign up for a Yahoo mail and calendar account. I did some poking around since I hadn’t used it in awhile and found out: IMAP, pay extra; POP, pay extra; iCal or CalDAV, pay extra. I looked at that to configure Google Calendar and Gmail to check my Yahoo mail and I couldn’t do it.

    Google provides all of that for free; it works with all kinds of mail clients and my phone (Yahoo apparently is an option on the iPhone, but I’ll admit I haven’t tried it). If I don’t like Gmail’s interface for some reason, I don’t have to use it. On top of that, Google provides a site to tell you how to migrate data out of its properties using open standards. It also has published API’s for most products to make mashups and integrate their tools. They also provide the same toolkits they use to build their apps. Maybe you can’t download Gmail’s code and change it, but it is just about as open as a cloud application gets these days. Considering that few people encrypt their e-mail, worrying about Google having access to your mail is a little silly considering that all of the mail relays can see it too. If you want to control your data, you don’t want to use a cloud app from pretty much anybody.

    As far as ease of use, I can see where some people might not like Gmail (this is subjective after all), but I have personal experience with non-geeks who have no problem using Gmail and Calendar. They’ve even found out how to have separate business and mail accounts and check them with the same gmail account, as well as share their calendars with different access privileges. The fact that Gmail has 175 million users must mean they have gotten a few things right and, at least with the group of family users I support, people are pretty happy with Google’s apps.

    I’m not going to give them a pass on everything. I found out how to turn off Buzz as soon as I could. I can’t figure what I’d use Wave for. I’ve used Android in emulation, and while I like the API and the geeky things I can do with it, I find the iPhone easier to use when I just want to do ‘phone things’.

    Google Buzz might not be great, but maybe Android will be part of the 20% that works. Considering the volume and variety of Android devices that are, and will be, available, Google has the opportunity to make a big impact. We have been in this position before: Apple made the case for the personal computer, but Microsoft and IBM provided the lowest common denominator that ended up dominating the market. Today, Apple has made smartphones desirable to the masses, but Android may end up eating their lunch by being cheaper and more open. It depends on Google’s execution at this point. The iPad didn’t really show any major innovations in user interface. Perhaps that will give Google an opening to improve Android to the point where most people think it is ‘good enough’. Time will tell.

  21. Also, believe Google did not “expect” this is just ridiculous.

    First of all, the internets have been peppered with Facebook’s privacy issues, exposing to everyone how important privacy is in this space.

    More importantly, Google had the EXACT SAME problem with Google Reader, more than 2 years ago!

    http://tech.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/12/24/2355203

    http://www.wisebread.com/google-reader-invades-your-privacy-and-its-not-going-to-stop

    (and that was not even a privacy violation, since this was public information already, hidden by the obscurity of a link…) How could they have just forgotten that?

  22. Wow…

    Finally, someone points out the OBVIOUS reason why Google chose to attach Gmail and Buzz by the hip. Simply because its Google’s most successful product which cannot be used anonymously (needs an account). Another choice would have been Youtube (but again, that is used anonymously too).

    In other words, most Google Accounts activity happens in Gmail. There is NO OTHER reason they did this.

    The whole “better customer experience” is complete nonsense.

  23. Apple: products

    Google: half-baked concept cars (Android, Buzz, etc)

    MSFT: vaporware, until it ships, 10 years late and half its promised features missing. And 150 extra features you DON’T want (DRM) there instead.

  24. This exposes a bigger challenge that confronts Google, just as it did Microsoft, and IBM and Digital (and Sony) before them.
    When you are a platform vendor and the number of platforms proliferate, where do you place bets? No company can successfully fight multi-front wars, particularly when it doesn’t know where the next front will pop up.
    Microsoft’s biggest issue is not that it’s products suck–it’s that it has been stuck with the biggest legacy group and then tries to be all things to those users. Each new platform becomes a field it feels compelled to compete in, rather than an opportunity for new initiatives.
    I think these companies could all learn from Cisco, which offers these key lessons.
    1. Buy innovation if you don’t have it internally.
    2. Always be figuring out where it’s going in 3, 5, or 10 years.
    3. You don’t have to own the whole pie, just key parts.
    4. Look at other people’s platforms as opportunities for new kinds of products.
    5. Don’t box yourself in by saying you only make hardware, or only make software or only provide services in a certain area. Be ready to do what it takes.
    6. Don’t get hung up on open versus closed.
    7. Take care of partners.
    I think Google has by and large tried to follow the Cisco pattern but because it has so many engineers and so few grown-ups, it’s more difficult.

    • I think you might be missing the fundamental tragedy of Google (and Microsoft). Both have the full attention of consumers. Both have virtually unlimited funds. Both have loads of talented people. Neither have the imagination required to know what can be done with any of these priceless assets.

    • Phil, to be humorous, Cisco missed one of the biggest platforms in recent decades, smartphones. Remember the Cisco “iPhone”? :)

  25. Great article. I love how you expose the obvious motivation behind the Buzz disaster as opposed to just railing about what happened as most are doing.

    I think you overplay or overestimate the Possible public outrage over this “trick” however, in that it’s a trick that usually works and one that’s usually quickly forgotten/forgiven.

    • Sadly, I have to agree with you. But just as in Microsoft’s case, it’ll eventually catch up with Google too, because it teaches you to be fat and lazy.

  26. First, Google’s sole cash cow is not search, it’s advertising. Search just happens to be the worm on the hook. From what I’ve read on these here internets, search as we know it is leveling off implying that Google’s ability to sell ads is leveling off and by implication Google’s corporate growth is or soon will be leveling off. Not good from Google’s strategic point of view.

    IMO this is driving Google into all these other projects; chrome, android, buzz, wave, gmail, reader, etc. The idea is to leverage their sheer size of audience to ensnare yet more people and get them tangled in the g-web of apps and services in order to serve ads. More page views, more ads.

    Here I come to the same conclusions as you. Google is primarily an engineering company, dominated by engineers who don’t really get design. Not design as Msoft use it to make things look “ok” but design as hand in hand part of the development process of how people use and relate to things and what excites and pleases them. This is Apple’s competitive advantage and it’s amazing that the other 2 companies don’t understand it (I just can’t bring myself to look at gmail, egads! talk about primordial soup).

    All 3 companies have incredibly talented people working for them. Only one of the 3 companies (Apple) seems to consistently innovate and excite users. In the end its about corporate cultures and Microsoft and Google are each starting to look dysfunctional while Apple pile up the billions and SJ is named CEO of the megaverse. His ability to demand that products impress “the rest of us” as opposed to the world of geek. Nothing wrong with geeks mind you, but you don’t get to corporate valuations of 100s of billions by just impressing geeks.

    • Eric, there are are other advertising outlets besides Google, but, in Google’s case, no search > no advertising > no revenue. That’s what I meant.

    • Kontra, I think we’re agreeing here, my only point was that your original statement implied (to me) that search was generating the cash and I kind of nudged that to say search was pulling in the eyeballs which then saw the adverts which generated the cash.

  27. “What’s needed is [...] a fundamental rethinking of the presentation of [...] search.”

    Good thinking, I fully agree. Would be surprised however if they do. So slowly an opportunity arises for some other player to compete against Google on its core competence. It will be quite interesting to see how things evolve.

  28. Groovy perspective.

    Buzz was another attempt by Google of commodotizing the compliment, in this case social search. But opening up social search fully will actually commoditize search as well (why ask a search engine what groups of brilliant people are more than happy to share with their historic social data).

    But there’s a shift happening that is undermining both Apple’s “deep design” and Google’s massive search. It’s the same change is moving people away from TV towards YouTube.

    Consumers are becoming creators.

    Modular components and modern manufacturing is moving the power from the bigger corporations into the hands of the individual. Why would I need Apple or Google when I can create my own hardware designs, pay for them to be manufactured (or build them from kits) and use open source software? While that’s not reality now it soon will be.

    The same goes for web experiences. People of all programming skill levels will soon be able to craft their own information portals and easily mashup data flow through varied APIs.

    Businesses that excel in providing users with the greatest ability to craft their own experiences will win.

    • “Modular components and modern manufacturing is moving the power from the bigger corporations into the hands of the individual. ”

      No, it’s not. Who do you think owns the manufacturing plants? It’s not the individual.

      “Consumers are becoming creators.”

      No, they aren’t. Passive consumption of media is getting bigger.

    • “Businesses that excel in providing users with the greatest ability to craft their own experiences will win.”

      I disagree, businesses which provide a great user experience will likely get a greater share of a market than businesses which allow customisation and tinkering. Most people (not all) don’t want to tinker with a product or service, they just want a product to do what it says on the tin and if it impresses and delights them while doing that you have a winner. The PC did not come to dominate the market over the mac (initially) because of its tinkerability but because IBM brought confidence to corporate purchasers while Apple was flying rebel flags and showing businessmen as lemmings.

      The original Google search page was so clean and uncluttered compared to the massive “choices” of links offered by Yahoo and the score of other search engines of the time. Nothing to tinker with. Just a happy little Google logo and good search results was all that was needed.

    • It would be great if this were true, but it’s not. Most people have zero interest in making stuff, especially “webby” stuff like information portals and mashup data flow. They barely know how to find “facebook login” or use bookmarks. They just want to get things done, like talk/chat/tweet to friends, lookup and go to a restaurant/club, listen to a song, or view a photo or video clip.

      This is the same “engineer/geek” conceit that drives people to bash the iPad in favor of more complex Windows netbooks and even Mac laptops.

  29. Once again, the parallels to Microsoft are astonishing. Google seems to have learned the lesson well, or at least the worst parts of it. When in doubt, leverage existing dominance into new markets. That way, the new products don’t actually have to be good, let alone path-breaking, they only have to be good enough to feed on consumer inertia. Of course in corporate-speak they’d call it “synergy,” so that they don’t to admit to lazy thinking and absent strategic planning.

    As with Microsoft, it’s actually more sad than frightening, really. They’ve got the power to do remarkable things — both the attention of the public and buckets of cash. Yet, they (like Microsoft) instead succumb to an imagination deficit. They become fat, lazy, dumb, and worst of all, uninteresting.

  30. “It’s ludicrous to think that the Buzz fiasco was simply a result of under-testing.”

    Name me a single person who tested Buzz prior to launch who was not a Google employee.

    • Ian, are you saying the notion of exposure of private email account details by default is something that needs to be tested? And that there’s nobody at this $170B company that groks it? I’m not talking about testing pedestrian things like button positions, colors, and such.

    • ” And that there’s nobody at this $170B company that groks it? ”

      I’d believe it. Being worth $170 billion dollars doesn’t mean you will always do the right thing.

      It is possible for Google to make mistakes or be incompetent at things. I find the idea that Buzz must have been thoroughly tested to be a dubious proposition.

      Remember, Google lets its employees just randomly try stuff, with its “20%” philosophy. Perhaps this was a 20% idea that somehow got approval without proper testing?

    • The BBC’s reporting quotes Todd Jackson saying it was tested internally, and not alpha’d out to friends and family.

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8517613.stm

      I’m a great believer in the cock-up theory, and also I suspect that there’s enough of an internal “email monoculture” at Google (cf. Wave) and possibly enough of an arrogance about going from internal testing to release that the issue of how email is used in the wider world was simply not considered. Comparing it to the Bowman “which shade of blue” fiasco is slightly apples and oranges; past privacy issues with Reader, though, are much more relevant.

      I’d say they really don’t grok it, and it may take a lawsuit or two to instill them with some grok.

    • What I’m saying is simple: it was not tested by a diverse group of people. Google, internally, uses email in a particular way. Testing a major new social feature on one group, internally, is clearly a mistake.

    • And further to what Ian has said, that mistake (to not test further afield) was a management mistake and it brings up the question whether this was a small group of managers who didn’t “get it” or if there is a systemic management hubris which Google needs to correct. I’d be astounded if this issue isn’t being discussed and investigated intensely at Google HQ by senior admin. So it will be interesting to see what they learn from this or whether they learn from this. One can see a similar level of hubris in selling the Nexus One and not putting in place a system for handling complaints and queries.

    • It’s systematic, but it’s not so much hubris as culture. Google’s culture is founded on the assumption that information is best shared – no matter what information it is. They don’t sit there and actively say “oh, people better get used to sharing their email addresses, so we won’t account for that.” They simply have a blind spot which means they don’t ask those questions. It just doesn’t occur to them.

  31. firehouse -> firehose ?
    test -> tests in tests, tests, test, and tests more.

    What’s sad is that Google Search is currently in Vista. It is too hard to find things, you have to type in too many variations in the order of words to get meaningful results that aren’t polluted by the internet pond scum. They really need to focus on their core competency. I am now actively looking for a better search experience.

    • Duh, I meant Google Search at the moment is like Vista, it has been a victim of not enough attention from senior management now it is dominant. It hasn’t evolved nearly enough. I need another search solution.

    • Wow, bad design has a terrible effect on you.

      In all seriousnesses hope you feel better soon.

    • I agree with the author of this post 100%. And, I also agree with your point that Google’s search is not as useful as it could be or claimed to be.

      Google’s entire business model is based on serving up ads – everything else is incidental. As a result, their whole search algorithm secret sauce is skewed towards high traffic sites, and NOT towards relevant search results. The big media companies and “internet pond scum” all know how to play the Google SEO game. The users of the search suffer.

      “Instant search”? What a joke.

      Actually, I was waiting to hear about a class action against Google for this latest privacy raping of the Gmail user base. Shameless.

    • Update: I just came across this article that indicates the Canadian Government and a privacy watchdog group in the US is taking a closer look at the Google Buzz fiasco.

      More to come no doubt.

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