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

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When Google 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 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: Slide.com, 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.

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