Why Google has lost its mojo lately

Coolness is being put ahead of quality, argues Preston Gralla

Google has gone from innovative upstart to fat-and-happy industry leader in what seems like record time. Put simply, the search giant has lost its mojo. That's good news for Microsoft, and it could affect how you use Google's cloud computing services.

Google looks as if it's on top of the world right now, holding an ever-increasing lion's share of the search market. So why do I think it's lost its mojo? Let's start with the way it treats its employees. Google's largesse has been legendary — free food, liberal maternity and parental leave, on-site massages, fitness classes and even oil changes.

But according to a recent New York Times article, those days may be gone. Google recently doubled the price of its company-run day care, and when employees grumbled, top execs dismissed their concerns, according to the Times. The newspaper reported that Google co-founder Sergey Brin ignored the parents' concerns and complained that he was tired of employees who thought that they were to entitled to benefits such as "bottled water and M&Ms".

The article's author, Joe Nocera, concludes, "Google has shown that it thinks about day care the same way every other company does — as a luxury, not a benefit. Judging by what's transpired, that's what Google is fast becoming: just another company."

Another example: Google employees have started deserting the company. In one of the strangest turnarounds, Sergey Solyanik, who was development manager for Windows Home Server at Microsoft before he left for Google, abandoned Google to return to Microsoft — and he blogged about it. Solyanik is not alone; plenty of other Googlers have headed for the exits as well.

Need more evidence that the mojo is gone? Consider this: Google's stock price has plummeted about 34% from more than $740 per share in November 2007 to about $490 early last week. That's even worse than the overall market: The Nasdaq fell 16% and the Dow 17% in the same period. Once a company's stock price follows the market rather than setting its own course, its innovative days are often behind it.

Even if Google has lost its mojo, why should you care? It won't make your searches any less effective, will it?

No, your searches won't suffer. But Google has its eyes on bigger things than search, notably your IT department. It's looking to displace Microsoft with hosted services like Google Apps,Gmail and Google Docs.

When Solyanik left Google, he had this to say about Google services such as Gmail and Google Docs: "There's just too much of it that is regularly broken. It seems like every week 10% of all the features are broken.... And it's a different 10% every week — the old bugs are getting fixed, the new ones introduced."

Worse yet, he warned that Google's engineers care more about the "coolness" of a service than about the service's effectiveness. "The culture at Google values 'coolness' tremendously, and the quality of service not as much," Solyanik said.

All this is clearly very good news for Microsoft, which has already lost the search market to Google. If Google ever gets a serious foothold in IT, Microsoft is in trouble.

So what does it mean for you? If you're thinking of making the jump to Google hosted services, look beyond the magic of the brand name. Instead, take a hard look at the services it's trying to sell you, and evaluate Google the same way you would any other vendor.

And the next time you use Gmail, Google Calendar or Google Docs, take a close look at the service's logo. You'll notice (as pointed out in Computerworld''s editorial last week) the word beta there, even though some of those services have been around for several years; Gmail, for example, was launched in 2004. If Google is really ready for IT prime time, shouldn't it move its software out of the beta cycle?

Preston Gralla is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works and Windows Vista in a Nutshell . Contact him at Preston@gralla.com

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