Google’s Big Problem: It Ain’t What You Think

When I first met Larry Page and Sergey Brin back in the 20th century, my first impressions about them included phrases like super-smart, engineer’s engineers and minimalists. They argued against the clutter that was AltaVista (s yhoo) (for you youngsters it was a great search engine before Google) and wanted their creation – Google (s goog) – to be the exact opposite and focus on finding things on the web really, really quickly:

‘Today’s portals are not really about search, but instead they are all about pageviews and other services,’ says Page. ‘We are all about search and pure search, while the other guys think of themselves as media companies, not as search engines any more,’ quips Brin. (from my story for

They knew search queries were nothing without a super infrastructure to support those queries. But more importantly, they knew simplicity of that experience would endear them to the masses. Google came up with a clean white page that featured nothing but the Google logo, one small box for entering your queries and the search button. That was a perfect solution, and I bet Apple’s Steve Jobs would have a tough time finding fault with it. One look at the page and you knew exactly what to do next.

Now for the first ten or so years of Google’s life, that simple search-box driven philosophy worked well for the Mountain View, Calif-based Internet giant. It also found a way to augment that simplicity with a text-ads-based business model, which has turned the company into a nearly $30 billion a year behemoth.

Google’s Consumer Future

As it looks at its future, Google needs to realize that it has a “user experience” problem and its simplicity — the elegant search box — isn’t enough, especially as it starts to compete with rivals whose entire existence revolves around easy, consumer experiences. To me, user experience isn’t about making things pretty and using pretty icons. Instead it’s about making simple, beautiful, usable and user-friendly interfaces.

No one can argue with Google’s ability to engineer great software — they’ve done so in the past — but that simply isn’t good enough in the new worlds they are trying to conquer. Televisions, phones, productivity applications and even Google’s own local pages are less about search and more about engagement: something not core to the company’s corporate DNA. Here are three major challenges Google needs to surmount:

  • Make software usable by tens of millions of people on a disparate array of products.
  • Overcome its history of only using data to define its future.
  • Figure out how to keep people in their playground, rather than helping people find the information they were looking for and sending them elsewhere: a radical new approach to business.

Those problems are behind the issues the company is facing with some of its products. Yesterday, the New York Times (s nyt) reported that Google was postponing the release of Google TV software, which in turn would delay its partners’ plans to show connected televisions at the Consumer Electronics Show 2011 (CES). Google TV software has come under criticism for being too complex.

Such challenges aren’t unique to Google TV, though they might be most acute because of its newness. For the past few days, I’ve been using a Nexus S, a smartphone made by Samsung on behalf of Google using Android OS – which is arguably an OS engineered for a cloud-centric world. The hardware, as one would expect from Samsung, is of top-notch quality. The T-Mobile 3G network delivers most, if not all, of the time. Most of the apps I love are also available on the device.

Yet the Android OS leaves me feeling like one feels three hours after having Chinese food: a tad empty. That’s not to say millions of devices won’t sell with Android on them, but the OS  lacks the smoothness and fluidity of Apple’s iOS (s aapl). It takes a few more gestures to get things done on Android. When I use the iPod touch, I can feel the obvious differences in the user experience. It’s one of the main reasons why Android’s biggest supporters — HTC, Samsung and Motorola (s MOT) — are adding their own user-experience shell on top of Android.

Lest you call me an Android-hater, Andy Rubin, one of the co-fathers of Android, recently acknowledged at an industry event: “I would probably characterize Android today as an enthusiast product for early adopters — or wives of tech enthusiasts.”  Recently, I got the Cr-48, a Chrome OS-based laptop for trials. After using it for a few days, I pointed out in a review that the Chrome OS interface “is rough around the edges,” and that most of the Chrome OS web apps were still a work in progress.

Google TV (based on Android), Google Android, and Google Chrome OS are complex software that have a unique challenge: They need to work on disparate devices in disparate form factors. It’s a unique quandary that would fox any company, and is particularly challenging for a company used to offering us the web through a single search box. Even Microsoft (s msft) didn’t have a task that challenging with its desktop-oriented Windows OS. It ran on a single platform (s intc), and whenever Microsoft tried to adapt it to new platforms, well, you know what happened.

When Past Defines the Future

Doug Bowman, currently the design head honcho at San Francisco-based Twitter, said in a blog post about his time at Google:

When I joined Google as its first visual designer, the company was already seven years old. Seven years is a long time to run a company without a classically trained designer. Google had plenty of designers on staff then, but most of them had backgrounds in CS or HCI. And none of them were in high-up, respected leadership positions. Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions.

With every new design decision, critics cry foul. Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail. “Is this the right move?” When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data.

Those are harsh words, but also true from a guy who worked on projects that included Google Calendar. That said, I totally understand that Google would be very careful about its user interface, especially around web services. Given it has hundreds of millions of users, one can’t fault them for being data-driven in their approach to user experience and user interaction. However, that argument doesn’t work, especially as it starts pushing more consumer-centric products.

Unlike the web and search, where it defined the user experience, in the world of physical goods, Google has to compete with the likes of Apple, which starts designing products with user experience as the life-force. Google has to learn the art of engagement — something particularly challenging.

Google, during its first ten years, thrived by helping people go elsewhere on the web. The faster it sent them elsewhere, the sooner those users would return. However, these new platforms Google is trying to build are inherently personal. Unlike the PC-based web browser which tries to help you find things, these new platforms are about bringing information to you. They are about discovery, not search.

Google is like an old dog trying to learn new tricks. The good news is that Google isn’t that old, and more importantly, the company knows it has a problem and is trying to find ways to fix it.  Rubin isn’t the only Google executive who has been vocal about building better user experiences. David Girouard, who heads up Google’s cloud efforts, told me the company is working on building better user experiences for their apps as well as other Google offerings.

Knowing you have a problem is the first step; fixing it is the next one. Hopefully, Google does that fast.

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