James Whittaker, Google and Innovating Evil

James Whittaker was a director of engineering at Google. He wrote a nifty book about How Google Tests Software. I briefly was a consultant on a short-term part of a project, and met him, while I was still a grad student. He was smart, funny, and completely understood my objections to some of the internal Google jargon.

Whittaker has recently left Google, and has written an interesting essay about “Why I Left Google” which you should read in its entirety, but I was struck by this:

The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.

There’s more; I especially was struck by Whittaker’s observation that

Under Eric Schmidt ads were always in the background. Google was run like an innovation factory, empowering employees to be entrepreneurial through founder’s awards, peer bonuses and 20% time. . . . In such an environment you don’t have to be part of some executive’s inner circle to succeed. You don’t have to get lucky and land on a sexy project to have a great career. Anyone with ideas or the skills to contribute could get involved.

He notes that:

It turns out that there was one place where the Google innovation machine faltered and that one place mattered a lot: competing with Facebook. Informal efforts produced a couple of antisocial dogs in Wave and Buzz. Orkut never caught on outside Brazil. Like the proverbial hare confident enough in its lead to risk a brief nap, Google awoke from its social dreaming to find its front runner status in ads threatened.

And that meant Google had to be “social”:

Larry Page himself assumed command to right this wrong. Social became state-owned, a corporate mandate called Google+. It was an ominous name invoking the feeling that Google alone wasn’t enough. Search had to be social. Android had to be social. You Tube, once joyous in their independence, had to be … well, you get the point. Even worse was that innovation had to be social. Ideas that failed to put Google+ at the center of the universe were a distraction.

And that meant, Google Reader was sacrificed on the G+ altar (interestingly, the announcement was made on March 13, the same day Whittaker explained his reasons for leaving Google).

The official reason for killing Google Reader was

There are two simple reasons for this: usage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience.

This is, of course, exceedingly, err, disingenuous. Note, by the way, that Google Reader first managed to screw over early RSS developers by making Google Reader ubiquitous. Then, they followed that tactical strike by making it easy to share items whose RSS feed you subscribed to, with others.

Google removed sharing from Google Reader around the time they started really pushing G+ (October of 2012). But not before Google encouraged developers to use the robust Google Reader API for apps; which meant an awful lot of desktop apps, smart phone apps, and tablets apps functioning as news readers relying on the Google Reader API for a “feed.” So while they may be somewhat lacking in the number of users using Google Reader on the Web (where they can insert ads, natch), there are many thousands of users using their Google Reader feed an app (that doesn’t have Google ads).

While lots of us are upset about the untimely demise of Google Reader and looking for alternatives to Google Reader (I use Reeder on iOS, but loved NetNewsWire on my Mac, and like lots of other former Google Reader users, I am now using Feedly while I figure what to do), Google today announced Google Keep.

Google Keep is a cloud-based data storage tool, an expansion of Google Drive.

With Keep you can quickly jot ideas down when you think of them and even include checklists and photos to keep track of what’s important to you. Your notes are safely stored in Google Drive and synced to all your devices so you can always have them at hand.

Or, at least, for certain Android values of “at hand.

In other words, Google looked at Evernote, and said, “Let’s steal their idea, and screw them over,” metaphorically speaking.

Sorta like they did with News readers and Google Reader. And I’m not the only one seeing usurption, thwarting, and then killing as a Google pattern (hey, remember Google Notebook?).

At this point, after Google Notebook and Google Reader, how long should I expect Google Keep to last (and, by the way, while we’re contemplating the negligible value of Google+,

So how long do you think they’ll keep Google Keep, before they employ mines and take it down (metaphorically speaking) ?

So, yeah, I’m going to buy a year’s subscription to Evernote Premium as soon as I can. I use Evernote every day, for research, for recipes, for notes and for collaborating, on my Mac, on the Web, and on all my iOS devices.


She plays o' the viol-de-gamboys, speaks three or four languages word for word without book, hath all the good gifts of nature, knows a hawk from a handsaw, and can see a church by daylight. The rest is subject to fancy.

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