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Google's Past Failures Offer Perspective on Chrome OS Release

The Internet is abuzz over Google’s (s goog) release of the open-source version of its Chrome OS, and for good reason. It’s free, which will save hardware manufacturers licensing fees, and it appears ideally suited for the netbooks that have become such a hot item for the mobile crowd (GigaOM Pro, sub. required). But Chrome is not without its detractors, and it’s worth remembering that Google isn’t King Midas — in fact, there’s a substantial list of Google products and services that have flopped, floundered or simply disappeared into the ether. Here are a few of the most memorable:

  • Google Lively was a web-based virtual environment that allowed as many as 20 people to sit in a virtual room and chat with each other. The offering debuted in July 2008 only to have Google pull the plug a mere four months later.
  • Google Print Ads was dropped earlier this year after the company’s vision of bringing web-like automation to the world of traditional media failed to materialize. The effort went belly-up just three weeks before the death of Google Audio Ads, which ended a three-year run in February after the company failed to gain traction in the radio ad game.
  • Google Answers spent a year in beta before a full-blown launch in May 2003, but the effort to create a fee-based knowledge market never gained much traction outside a small base of users and the service was dropped in late 2006.
  • The social networking site Orkut launched early in 2004 as an independent project of noted Google developer Orkut Büyükkökten and has caught fire in Brazil, a market that accounts for roughly 50 percent of its membership. The site reportedly claims roughly 100 million users, which is impressive, but Google can’t be happy that its effort is virtually unknown in Europe and North America while Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and others have gained such impressive traction.
  • Google Catalog Search debuted in 2001 as a way for consumers to go online to check out their favorite print catalogs that had been scanned and uploaded. Of course, retailers were already taking their inventories online themselves, and the effort was put to rest earlier this year.
  • Google Health was released as a beta test in May 2008, but the service has yet to find much of an audience among insurers or the general public. Which may have something to do with the combination of the words “health” and “beta test.”
  • The location-based service Dodgeball was shut down in 2009 after Google had acquired it four years earlier, and while Google continues to operate Jaiku — a social networking service it picked up in 2007 — the company has effectively abandoned the project. The technologies and expertise from both startups is being incorporated into other Google businesses and projects, however.

No company bats 1.000, of course, and a company as experimental and entrepreneurial as Google is bound to have its share of failures. As the blogosphere gushes over Chrome, though, Google’s stumbles help provide some perspective. Are there any other names that should be on this list?

25 Responses to “Google's Past Failures Offer Perspective on Chrome OS Release”

  1. I am thinking that Chrome OS may be successful as an additional
    OS on notebooks with Linux or Windows notebooks.
    I want an instant on machine that allows me to do web stuff
    without worrying about viruses, etc.
    I also may want to run programs (itunes, turbo tax,etc) and/or have a machine that
    works when the net is slow or unavailable.
    The cost of adding it is small (some flash memory).

    • Colin Gibbs

      Well said (or quoted), Mr. Notherguy.

      Not sure why a piece that praises Google as “experimental and entrepreneurial” would be considered “blatantly anti-Google,” but I think as the buzz surrounding Chrome OS increases it’s instructive to remember that the company is fallible.

      @ zelric — You’re absolutely right to mention the magnitude of the projects on the list, and it’s true that some of them were the “20 percent projects” Google encourages. But Dodgeball and Jaiku were straight-up acquisitions, and the company’s radio- and print-ad businesses were not just hobbies. And it certainly seems the company hasn’t failed to invest in Google Health.

  2. Props to google for supporting experimental projects publicly, even when they failed. They helped create a new attitude based on experimentation, not excessive polishing of apps.

    On the other hand i can already think of many situations where google OS would be useful, even outside netbooks, like internet kiosks, hotel pc’s, car computers etc. It may not prove the killer OS, but it does cover a need here.

  3. Not everything a company proclaims is the truth and nothing but the truth. I have read many accounts that Google developers spend their 20% time doing code reviews.

    It’s not that much that they throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks. Question is, if they learn from it as an Organization or not. Or how is individual learning incorporated into the larger organization, specially with “random” failure and success.

    At least with Android and Chrome OS there is a relation or guiding line possible which makes it much easier to learn as an organization then random stuff. My guess is that they will merge those 2 in 1-3 years.

    As more people are working on a product as more linear the solution becomes, and as more complicated.
    Which seems to shine through already in their WAVE and GO APIs, but that also depends on which problem or goal is the assumed underlying guide line. Google seems to think we’ll just wait what happens, which leads to the above statement.

    I don’t expect any break through products from them, more along the lines of Microsoft’s development process. Which is very successful at monetizing, and some people even like the products. Problem is. Is it the same environment as the Microsoft time frame?
    Bill Joy used to say “Not all smart People work at Sun”, which was pretty much localized at that point in time in the Computer industries. Bill Gates tried to fix it by hiring most of all of the perceived smart kids they could find. Google copies that.
    Only thing is, today in a World wide market isn’t it save to assume that “Most of the smart People will not work for you”. So I think that Eric Schmidt should act a little different then the early Bill Gates.

    Just wondering.

  4. You are missing something, the magnitude of the projects. The ones you mentioned here are little experiments Google employees did on their spare time in comparison to building an OS.

    I should remind you that Google employees are allowed to spend like 20% of their work time on separate projects. There is the remaining 80% which is very focused, believe me.

  5. This is so lame to think that past failures of Google will offer a perspective on anything, leave alone, Chrome OS. How come, what makes Google such a big success fail to offer a perspective? I guess the perspective to take away is that a negative title will bring more eye balls.

  6. I don’t fully agree with this articles… it is just depicting negative side of experimental Google… what about theirs success of YouTube, Reader, Picasa, Blogger, Maps, etc., these are class apart even today…

    If you respect NASA, do you know hit ratio of NASA? It is way less than 50% on all mission embankment…

    BTW, I love their Notebook… it is most awesome product … my life is half dead without it…..

  7. It would be preferable to get some actual perspective in the article, not just a list of failed products. In what ways are these products similar to Chrome OS or not? Seems to me that most of them failed because they were half-hearted efforts based on 20% projects or because they addressed a use case that turned out to not be compelling (who wants to be in a 20-person chat room, and isn’t that what IRC, etc., are already for?).

    What I’m particularly curious about for the Chrome OS is the lack of executables. No Skype, etc. The arguments that it’s for security and so that every client is interchangeable seem weak to me. For example, why doesn’t Google build Skype (or something similar) into the platform itself?

    Still, it’s a very interesting effort, and I have to echo the other commenter commending Google for continuing to try new things.

    • Libran Lover

      > For example, why doesn’t Google build Skype (or something similar) into the platform itself?

      Greg – when Google integrates Google Voice with Google Talk / GMail using Gizmo5, that is exactly what you will have – a Skype-like service. Also, nothing’s preventing Skype from offering a web version of its client.

  8. You said “…a company as experimental and entrepreneurial as Google is bound to have its share of failures…”

    That’s why most people, myself included, will commend this effort — regardless of the final outcome of their attempt to develop an OS. In contrast, most companies that get to their size rarely attempt to really create something different.

    Reminds me of the Dr. Denis Waitley’s truism — “Most people tiptoe carefully through life, so that they can make it safely to death.” Unfortunately, the same can be said about most companies.

  9. Libran Lover

    Errr… how exactly do the products you listed provide “some perspective” on the Chrome OS? Why are you not comparing Android & the Chrome browser to Chrome OS? If there are any Google products, which can be compared to the Chrome OS, it’s these two. Not all the other products you listed.

    We know there is a less-than-subtle anti-Google undercurrent in Gigaom posts (disguising itself as cynicism), but this is blatant.

    • Mishan Kontroll

      There’s more to this than just some products that inevitably don’t pan out. Google is now renowned for three things:
      — Lack of focus and discipline
      — Failure to follow through
      — Arrogance

      Android was very shaky in its early days, with changes to “frozen” APIs making life difficult for developers, and there’s a real prospect today that handset makers will “differentiate” the OS enough to create a mess. I’d love to see Android provide a more open alternative to iPhone, but Google has no real track record creating platforms and CEO Eric Schmidt has some blots on his record as the guy in charge of Java at Sun. The ironies of Schmidt running a company that’s now pushing Chrome and Android are extremely rich.

      I would add another product as a half-failure and a telling one: Picasa. Google acquired Picasa a few years ago and has been updating it, and it seems to have a healthy user base, but they have utterly failed to fix several severe flaws in an otherwise nice photo organizer/editor. It’s as if it’s a project being done by one guy in a basement in his spare time. A lot of stuff Google produces has an unfinished quality.

  10. HereAndNow

    ChromeOS has a good chance of success, because there is a clear market need for simplified, low cost computing for the masses…especially in developing countries.

    A ChromeOS-based netbook is expected to offer:

    – instant boot & fast runtime.
    – super long battery life (especially important, when access to electricity is limited!).
    – minimal system requirements & cost.
    – no OS maintenance (virus/spyware scanning, re-installs, upgrades, etc.).
    – no app installs & upgrades.
    – no data backup & recovery.

    Another feature that will likely become very useful, especially when computers are shared by students or family members:

    – “desktop” portability (your “desktop” is on the netbook you log in to).

    • An OS that is totally reliable on having an Internet connection is useless for us in Africa. If you cannot do everything offline, then it can’t work in Africa. We have occasional connectivity.


      • HereAndNow

        I would think that WiMax or some of the long range WiFi products on the market would be an expedient & economical way, to bring wireless broadband to the masses in developing countries.

        Perhaps, this will happen, as the global economy begins to pick up more steam.

    • ArseneKarl

      No, for Chrome OS to be even remotely useful. A reliable high speed internet connection is essential.

      Wi-Max is not happening in large scales, in developing country the situation is more dire.

      And there is also datacap and censoring going on, when YouTube and Facebook and Twitter are still blocked from China, how can Chrome OS survive? How?

      The goverment or google can single handedly deny you basic functionalities of your cheap computing terminal, really is it what we want, is it the future of the people of the developing countries?

      Yeah I know, big brothers are already doing it. It’s just Chrome OS make it TOO EASY.

  11. Other failed Google apps:
    Knol: wikipedia with expert written articles.
    notebook: way of organizing notes. Not being updated but current users can keep using their notebook account.

    • Google’s past failures beg for learning. However, not all Google products can be compared on the same grounds, and hence extrapolating from past failures is risky.

      Chrome OS does not seem to be in the same ball-park as knol or answers or lively etc. This is an OS for netbooks, probably worth comparing with android (or similar OS offerings – from symbian, microsoft, nokia/intel etc). Even then, we may not get the right picture.

      Chrome OS has a lot going for it. Show me some one who’d not want a laptop/netbook that boots in under 10 secs, or can help the batteries stay alive for a day… However, the fundamental message that the Chrome OS is screaming out loud is : “The days when laptops/computers were seen as IT products is gone. Here comes a netbook that is a consumer product”. Nerds, may back out and stay with their heavy-duty/professional stuff. The netbook is a Beetle, not a Benz. And Chrome OS powers it, in the best way known today.

      The beetle didn’t render other cars obsolete. Fast food will never make fine-dining obsolete. On a similar vein, the netbook with Chrome OS will gain acceptance, but professional PCs and laptops will continue.