There's been a creeping sense of inevitability to Google's rise to the top of the technology food chain. The company successfully beat back Apple's once-best-selling iPhone with its Android platform, and did so in less than two years. It is taking on Microsoft in virtually every market imaginable, a feat that just a few years ago would be described as impossible fantasy. And it appears to be dominating all others in the nascent market for cloud computing, leveling the playing field for individuals and companies of all sizes.
There's just one problem. Most of Google's products and services aren't actually that competitive, and some are even downright horrible. More problematic for the online giant: Two of its highest profile new products are already considered failures, one so bad that the company has pulled it out of next month's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) so it can completely revamp for a later re-release in 2011.
I'm writing about Google's Nexus S smartphone and Google TV.
The Nexus S is definitely the less embarrassing of the two. It launched to good reviews, mostly because of improvements in the latest version of the popular Android smartphone OS, which will make its way to other Android phones as well. But the Nexus S is the second generation version of the poorly-received Nexus One phone, which was the subject of so many customer complaints that Google stopped selling the device after just a few months. And Google recently delayed the international release of the Nexus S, and has already dropped the price by a stunning $185 in the UK. And this before the device even went on sale overseas.
Compared to Google TV, however, the Nexus S is a stunning success. Google TV launched to universally negative reviews, and the Sony TV unit I received is so wretched and indecipherable that I ultimately refused to even review it. Google TV is so horrible, so utterly unusable and unfriendly, that Google has taken the unusual step of pulling the product from CES 2011 and telling its hardware partners to hold off on new product announcements. Instead, Google will completely revamp the ill-conceived hardware and relaunch it sometime later in 2011.
While such criticisms are often hidden beneath the latest gadget-happy headline, other Google products are starting to receive a bit more scrutiny as well. In another high-profile move, the company recently held a second Chrome OS event, handing out prototype devices to the tech press, who were only too happy to pretend not to notice that Google had actually delayed the release of the product from late 2010 to sometime in 2011. (You may recall that my own headline regarding this event simply read "Google Delays Chrome OS to 2011 ".) The company is the subject of more privacy concerns than even Facebook. And its enterprise services are lackluster and incomplete, especially when compared to Microsoft's more mature offerings.
Even Google's supposedly successful products are questionable. Phones based on its Android platform are apparently outselling the iPhone, but this required numerous partners selling dozens of devices on multiple wireless networks in every market in the world. Apple, meanwhile, basically sells a single iPhone, and it does so by itself and via only a subset of the available wireless networks. So yes, Android is winning. But the gap isn't that big, and it's pretty clear that the iPhone is in fact outselling most Android handsets combined.
I'd also point out that the tech press has made much in the past year about Microsoft's inability to create a viable iPad alternative, while simply ignoring that Google has been even more inept in this department. Not only does Google not yet have an answer to the iPad, it actually spent much of 2010 trying to convince its partners against pushing Android-based devices in this space. Instead, it's looking ahead to yet another new Android version, perhaps due in 2011, for such purposes. (One thing you'll learn about Android is that the next version is always the one that will fix all the problems.)
The point here isn't to harangue Google, per se, but rather to point out that we're often all-too-quick to point out the perceived failings in a certain software giant from the northwest US, while silently ignoring Google's many product failures. (And yes, I've been guilty of this as well, though I do feel a certain responsibility toward Microsoft and its customers.) Google is a company that still makes the vast majority of its revenues—I'm talking roughly 99 percent of those revenues, according to Wikipedia—from awful little textual ads tied to its dominant search engine. This despite major initiatives in virtually every tech market imaginable.
The problem for the Microsofts of the world, of course, is that Google's seemingly endless supply of money gives the company the ability and the time to quickly enter new markets with products—good or bad—and improve them until they are finally competitive. (Google currently has over $30 billion in cash and is adding almost $4 billion to its hoard each quarter.) But it's important not to lose sight of the fact that not everything Google does is even remotely competitive out of the gate. In fact, some of the stuff this online giant foists on the public is actually pretty terrible.
Someone had to say it.