Dear Google, What’s Wrong With You?

Dear Google: What’s wrong?

I ask because last weekend, while in San Francisco, I asked Google Maps for “hot chocolate mission” — and was promptly directed to an ARCO station in Fremont, 40 miles away. Similarly, last month I searched for “coffee” while in the Embarcadero Center, one of the denser coffee hotspots in America, and was sent to a Starbucks more than two miles away. And it hasn’t escaped my notice that you keep highlighting faraway places with Zagat listings over much closer places without.

Now, sure, if you’re thinking “hey, you’re just abusing your position as a highfalutin tech columnist to make anecdotal complaints here!” — well, you’re not entirely wrong. Perk of the position. What can I say? But Google Docs won’t save documents, the new Gmail interface still feels like a big step backwards, Gmail Offline keeps crashing on me, Google Hangouts hangs whenever we try to combine text chat and video…and for what it’s worth, it’s not just me who’s wondering what’s gone wrong:

Don’t misunderstand. I’ve long been one of your bigger fans. Sure, I complained: “Google is in serious decline” a few years ago, but you’ve managed to turned your mighty aircraft carrier around quite nicely since. Stock at record heights, etc., etc., etc.

I don’t think you’re in decline now. Quite the opposite: I think in certain domains you’ve become so dominant that you’ve grown complacent. In fields where you’ve got real competition — e.g. Android, Chrome — you’re as incisive and innovative as ever. Google+ isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but it’s probably become an asset rather than a hindrance. And the ambition of Google Glass and your crazy moon-shot stuff like balloon-powered global Internet and self-driving cars (oh, yeah, and immortality) remains awesome.

The problem is that in certain fields you hardly need to compete any more. I mean, who competes with Google Maps? Oh, there are plenty of competitors, but who actually competes? Even mighty Apple is perceived as dramatically inferior (although Apple Maps has improved by leaps and bounds since its balky launch.) As for Bing Maps, and Nokia’s Here, and OpenStreetMaps et al. — forget about it.

So if you want to highlight all things Zagat since you acquired them, and downplay all others, who’s going to stop you, right? I mean, you sent me to a gas station 40 miles away for hot chocolate, and I just shook my head and took it in stride. It would be way too much work to install and familiarize myself with an entirely different map app, when you’re usually mostly good enough. (Also, to be fair, after I complained about you on Twitter, a friend who’s a Google employee directed me to Cafe St. Jorge, so I can’t rule out the possibility that you were just playing the long and subtle game.)

Same with your bread-and-butter search. Even if Bing was better — and I don’t for a moment believe that it is — who’s actually going to the trouble to find that out? I’d have to compare a multitude of different searches to figure out whether I should switch, and that’s way too much work in this modern world. As long as you’re perceived as good enough, you don’t actually need to get any better. Maybe you will anyways, out of the goodness of your heart, or, more accurately, your aesthetic hunger for purity and perfection — but you won’t be pushed there. So of course you slow down and get sloppy.

It’s not really your fault, Google; it’s the fault of your would-be competitors. So, what the heck, since they can’t seem to get their collective act together, why not go building barges instead of polishing products? I bet it’s a lot more fun.

But Google, be careful. IBM grew dominant and became complacent. Microsoft grew dominant, and became complacent. And look what happened to them. Okay, fine, so they’re still immensely profitable megacorporations, but they lost the initiative, they no longer dictate the conversation, they’re not the ones who build the future any more; they just come and mop up after it’s built.

That is not the Google way. But you’re pretty huge these days, arguably bloated, and middle-aged for a tech company — and while your numbers are great, revenue is a lagging indicator in the technology business. I’m not saying all is lost. Far from it. I’m just saying that, where everyone else seems to see a dominant unstoppable machine, I think I see some distant early warning signs. I hope you see them, too.

Image Credit: Rajesh Patel, DeviantArt.