Ten Miles Square


March 22, 2013 10:00 AM The Trouble with Google Products

By Austin Frakt

I’ve been waiting for this post from Ezra Klein. It follows another good one from James Fallows, to which Ezra refers.

Together, the Gmail experience, the death of Google Reader, and the closure of Picnik all have me questioning whether I want to keep investing time and energy in “free” Google products or whether I need to start looking for paid services that are explicitly making money off the thing I am paying them to do. And if more and more of the people who would be Google’s early adopters feel as I do, and as Fallows does, then that could become a problem for Google. [Emphasis added.]

This is precisely why I am optimistic about NewsBlur as a replacement for Google Reader. To get the fully functional version, you have to pay a fee. It’s not much, a few bucks a month, but it is enough for Samuel Clay, its founder, to make a living creating and maintaining a good product. Without such a revenue source, I would worry about its sustainability. I could say other nice things about NewsBlur, but I’m going to wait. Clay is working hard to scale it up and fix bugs after being slammed with demand in the wake of the Reader pull-out announcement. When I think it’s ready, I’ll tell you to give it a try.

Meanwhile, Google is retrenching toward its revenue-generating products. Those are not products that serve up ads, per se, but products they can sell to businesses. After all, if Gmail has ads — and it does — so could Reader. The difference is that Gmail is an enterprise app. So is Calendar. And Docs (or Drive). Those are products Google has a business reason to invest in and maintain. They can sell versions of them to companies for profit. Any product that can’t, in time, is at risk of being dumped. I no longer trust Google to do otherwise, which brings me to my tweet earlier today.

[Originally posted at The Incidental Economist]

Austin Frakt is a health economist and an assistant professor at Boston University's School of Medicine and School of Public Health. He blogs at The Incidental Economist.
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  • RepubAnon on March 23, 2013 11:16 AM:

    "Anything free is worth what you pay for it"

    If an activity doesn't help put food on the table or pay the bills, it is a hobby. If times get tough, or the hobbyist loses interest, the hobby gets cut. Think how many of your favorite blogs have disappeared for these reasons.

    And so, just as with newspaper paywalls, it is a good idea to pay for an activity that you value. The less revenue it generates for the person putting in the effort to keep it going, the more likely it is to disappear.

  • Gary Smith on March 23, 2013 1:54 PM:

    I stopped actively looking for and using free apps (both offline and web-based) several years ago, including several Google apps, precisely because I found large companies to be untrustworthy in keeping those apps around and maintained. This often extends even to paid apps that are no longer considered a priority by the originating company and are then orphaned.

    Mostly, I go the the smaller companies when possible, with a few programs with larger user bases that would be harder to abandon. For example, I doubt if Adobe will abandon InDesign, but I don't yet trust the cloud-based Creative Suite. Too easy to shut down.

    I'm willing to pay reasonable prices for off- or online programs, so I don't have to relearn/reimport/redo work every few years when some MBA gets a bug up.... well, you get the idea.

  • Dave on March 24, 2013 3:06 AM:

    I agree with almost everything Gary Smith (previous comment) has to say. However, he thinks Adobe may pull the plug on the cloud-based Creative Suite. With over 500,000 people already signed up, mostly on annual contracts, Adobe is staring a cash-cow in the face. I find it highly unlikely they will shut it down. If Google could make Reader a cash-cow, they would. I don't think any fancier explanations are needed.

  • pbasch on March 24, 2013 11:42 PM:

    Any service or good may vanish, whether it's paid for or not. Just because you pay for something, doesn't mean it makes a profit. And even if it makes a profit, it may not make enough of a profit. Even if it makes enough of a profit, the company may be bought and the product terminated.
    The best way to compete may not be to offer a better product at a better price, but to borrow enough to buy your competitor, then sell off its assets to pay your debt.

  • Fay Yin on March 25, 2013 11:06 AM:

    Opensourced products based on a community always seems to last as far as 'free' goes. However, nothing is free. Someone has to work for it either in the time it takes to learn the use the software or in the effort of developing and maintaining it. Maybe Google has figured that out.

  • Dana on April 01, 2013 8:57 AM:

    As the old saying goes, if you receive something of value without paying for it, then you are the product being sold. There are now so many ways of tracking our reading habits that this is no longer a profitable venture for Google. We tend to be a little more private about our calendars and email, which is why Google can continue to profit from data mining them.

  • smartalek on April 01, 2013 2:09 PM:

    What pbasch said, 3 comments up, yes.
    That's what happened when Apple bought out lala, the best on-line paid-music-service I'd been able to find, and shut it down, because it was an infinitely better deal than iTunes.
    I'm still angry about that one -- or at least would be if YouTube hadn't evolved to be a pretty good functional equivalent in the most important respect (ability to stream whatever you want from the cloud at low cost -- in YT's case, zero -- tho I expect that to disappear soon, as Play ramps up; enjoy it while you can).