It has not escaped notice that Google has been pruning its portfolio of web properties of slow performers and revamping others to a more stylish look than the typical engineer-designed, serviceably-boilerplate mien its products have traditionally exhibited. Just this week, both Gmail and Reader have gone under the knife and come out again with a new, less-cluttered look based on the "cool" design first adopted by the new Google + social networking site.
This seems to coincide with a broader effort to revamp and brand the company's existing offerings as a more coherent whole. On the face of it, this is a noble effort to bring some sort of consistency to a group of products that were never envisioned as complementary, and which arose from an intentionally fragmented design process. In the execution, however, it is shaping up to be an unmitigated disaster. The company seems eager to ape Apple's formerly brilliantly unified look and feel, while failing to understand or implement any of the processes that have allowed Apple to seamlessly blend form and function. The result has been confusion and butchery, with potentially dangerous impacts for Google's long-term prospects.
Take, for example, Reader. The Reader re-design, as brilliantly dissected by former Reader Project Manager Brian Shih simply casterated the functionality as the price of achieving a consistent look. If it is not a look designed by engineers, the overall approach still appears to be primarily informed by an engineer rather than a designer: presented with the challenge of offering consistency, a single efficient format was selected, without any particular analysis of its usability. The look, in other words, matches the spec, but the function fails to match the stated role of the product.
This failure has alienated a substantial user community as well as reduced the actual utility of the product. It might be quite justifiably noted that Reader is a free product which users have little room to complain about, but the problems are not just with Reader nor are they restricted to non-paying customers. The City of Los Angeles is on the verge of rejecting a Google Apps implementation for the LAPD based on Google's failure to address functional security concerns, leaving the company on the hook to pay for a Novell Groupwise update instead. Other Apps customers have been dissatisfied with their own integration to Google Plus.
This sort of general discombobulation can be found on every front, as Michael Degusta's brilliant and carefully researched chart of Android platform support shows. Android may be moving fast due in large part to the many companies developing phones for the platform, movement that Google has enthusiastically pursued. However, that same breadth has resulted in fragmentation and a growing sense of user dis-satisfaction as the usability and stability of some of their most personal devices grows shaky. One gets the sense that, in the pursuit of ever increasing features and market share, there is no one at Google paying any attention to the factors that will shape the brand reputation over the longer term.
None of this smacks of planning or any consideration whatsoever of the effect of the company's actions on users. Google, from the top down, seems blissfully unconcerned. And they have reasons to be complacent; their paychecks are coming from Google's massive ad business, not from all these various free or low-volume products. They have no skin in the game.
Of course, this was always true at Google, but what made these other projects work initially was that they were created primarily by small teams of focused engineers attempting to scratch an itch. They built products they wanted to use; it turned out that other people wanted to use them, too.
Now that a more consolidated, centralized direction has been established, the individual voices on those teams seem to have been over-ruled. The products are still aimed at the same itches, but they've been re-formed into less efficient scratchers by corporate fiat that prizes consistency and some emphasis on "look" borrowed from another company over efficacy.
This is not a problem that is going to hurt Google today or tomorrow, but over the long run, as the ad business morphs and growth in that market becomes limited, the failure to comprehend and adjust consumer-facing application strategy to cater to what people actually want may turn Google into the next Microsoft: a monolith with a ton of money and market reach, with few prospects for continued growth or long-term relevance.