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Is a backlash over Sparrow’s sale to Google justified?

When Google (s GOOG) announced the acquisition of hot French mail startup Sparrow on Friday, reaction to the deal was… well, mixed.

On the one hand, people were happy. A small company that had built up a strong following with a great iOS (s AAPL) product had made some money — with The Verge reporting that the deal was worth something up to $25 million.

On the other, people were disappointed. The news that the app would effectively be discontinued, and the team absorbed into Gmail, left many cold. BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza had a wry take, while Daring Fireball’s John Gruber summed at least part of it up in a brief note:

Congratulations to the Sparrow guys, I guess, but this gives me The Fear for Sparrow’s future. Hope you like Apple Mail.

I can understand that bittersweet feeling — as a Sparrow user myself, I felt something similar. But ultimately, isn’t it really just hipsterish posing? At its worst moments, the backlash smacks of the disdain that only those with no real skin in the game can afford. “Oh no,” they weep, sipping on a PBR. “My favorite indie band sold out and got a big contract: I hate them now,” before their attention goes somewhere else and they forget about the episode entirely.

Not everyone thought it was a bad thing, though. iOS developer Matt Gemmell put forward his forthright opinion — that those complaining about Sparrow’s sale were not just issuing “predictable squawking” but that they were acting like spoiled children.

He’s largely correct. But does that make the disappointment invalid? Or just human? Software consultant Rian van der Merwe added some nuance to the argument by pointing out that part of the backlash may be because it undermines a strong philosophy in the indie community:

We’ve chanted this refrain wherever we could: If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. We point to Facebook and Delicious and ad-supported sites and lament the fact that we’re all just a set of eyeballs being sold to advertisers. So we came up with a solution. We decided that we don’t want to be free users any more. We decided that we want to pay independent developers directly so that they can have sustainable businesses and happy lives […] But with Sparrow’s acquisition the cracks in the philosophy starts to appear.

That may be true to a degree: people don’t like having their philosophies challenged.

But let’s be honest, Sparrow may have been a great email app, but it was still just an email app used by a small community. It may have made some profit in the long run, but it was a venture-funded business that was also limited by its very nature.

For me, at least, there was a different and more particular reason for the purchase that gave me a sad little twinge. It’s not just that Sparrow will no longer be developed or supported: it’s that the talent on display at Sparrow may not actually make its way into Google’s products.

After all, the history of Google acquisitions, particularly the smaller ones, is not great. When it bought location-based game Dodgeball in 2005, it quickly sidelined the project. Founder Dennis Crowley left after years of frustration and resurrected the idea with Foursquare. Feedburner, a $100 million acquisition in 2007, has been pretty much left to rot.

And the list goes on:, Aardvark, Jaiku… Even Google executives themselves have admitted that a third of its acquisitions fail. Given that track record, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Google is the place where great startups go to die.

Talent acquisitions are interesting and can pay great dividends for founders. But where Google is involved they can just as often turn sour, go nowhere and end with the founding team leaving and effectively doing the same project all over again. Let’s hope for Sparrow — and for email users everywhere — it doesn’t do a Dodgeball.

13 Responses to “Is a backlash over Sparrow’s sale to Google justified?”

  1. Evan Goldin

    The indie band selling out is a totally false comparison. When an indie band signs a major deal, they KEEP PRODUCING MUSIC. This is more like your favorite indie band getting hired to be the new American Idol judges. Sure, you might see their influence, but you can’t enjoy their work anymore. And that’s a shame, because Sparrow built a great product.

  2. I don’t think people are upset with the Sparrow team. I’m sure most of us will do the same in their position. The issue is the black hole that is Google effectively destroying the internet with their warped vision of how it will be used in the future.

    They ruin genuinely good applications because the want to dictate how people interact with each other. Labeling people as ignorant for being upset about this is ignorant in itself.

  3. Skeeter Harris

    I for one am happy for the dev team at Sparrow but feel both Sparrow and Apple owe me money back! As someone who just purchased on 7/13 the Mac client “on-sale” only to hear this news I’m furious! They obviously knew they were going to be sold and to then put the software “on sale” limited time only is un-ethical. Why would anyone buy a software product only to find out that you are most likely never going to see an update on this product for either new features or bugs, where there are plenty of!

    To me this is a fundamental flaw with the APP store overall. This is one area that Google does is significantly better then Apple – You can buy apps and you have a short window where you can return the product. I for one have requested a refund through the Apple store and it’s this kind of thing that makes me very cautious of buying on the Mac App Store. It’s one thing to by a $.99 or $2.99 APP and feel bad about it, it’s entirely unacceptable to spend $9.99 or more and then find you have something that is worthless!

  4. RB6719

    This reminds me of what happened to Stanza, and for those that can remember Bungie (creators of Halo). Good software that gets bought out/acquired, not to improve it but to remove it from use for the competition. I like many others are happy for the Sparrow team for reaping the benefits of their development. But it puts a bad taste in our mouth for having supported the app then having it abruptly discontinued and unsupported.

  5. tone def

    This post. Nobody on the entire internet was upset because Sparrow “sold out.” I guarantee that every disappointed user would be thrilled if the team were to keep working on Sparrow, with Google direction and influence, as opposed to abandoning the product altogether. That is, we wish they had only “sold out.” But they didn’t. They killed the product altogether, the week after heavy promotional marketing, and less than a month after promises of features that would soon be integrated into the iOS version.

    But not a single user’s thoughts that I have encountered have come across as “hipsterish posturing.” If anyone is guilty of it, it’s you: “I’m upset about Sparrow, but not for the same hollow reasons that all the sheep are.”

  6. I’m sorry but what indie philosophy? There are plenty of indie devs making free and even ad supported software. And there are obviously millions of people that don’t mind targeted ads as your information isn’t sold in the first place. Hell its as much a service to you as it is the advertiser. You’re being connected with companies you might be interested in.

    • Bobbie Johnson

      Phil – I think the think point about an ‘indie philosophy’ is to make a small, profitable, independent company. Sure, ads and data collection *can* be part of that mix, but you can’t benefit so much from targeted ads if you don’t have scale, and you may not have scale if you aren’t a venture-funded business that’s targeting acquisition.

  7. ashwinc

    I second Atul. I was one of the victims, tempted to buy Sparrow at a discounted price – only to know a week later that the product will be discontinued. Doesn’t feel professional.

  8. For me, the real disappointment was the sale Sparrow held just weeks before the announcement, where happy users like urged our followers to buy themselves a copy. Sparrow certainly knew at that time that they were being acquired and that product would be discontinued. I would rate that as highly unprofessional, and in extremely bad taste.

    • Bobbie Johnson

      Good point, Atul: it’s always caveat emptor for anybody who buys a product, but there’s a special irritation in purchasing the day or week before a major twist in the story.

    • Paul Natsch

      That’s the first thing that popped into my mind as well when the news broke. It was only $5 but there’s just no excuse for that.