Why Google's software approach won't work for smartphones or the enterprise

Summary:Google is making a big run at new markets with business software and mobile phones. However, it will not succeed in either market unless it changes the way it builds its products. Both of these markets will reject Google's "continuous beta" philosophy.

It's easy to argue that the primary reason Microsoft has become the world's largest software maker is that the company has repeatedly shown the ability to ship products. Even though the products may not be perfect and they may not meet the original ship date, Microsoft has proven that it almost always knows when the products are good enough to release to the market.

Google is emerging as one of Microsoft's key competitors in the software business - perhaps even its biggest competitor within a few years - but Google has not mastered the "good enough" principle. Google software engineers have arguably created only two highly-profitable hit products: the ubiquitous Google.com search engine and the Web-based email client Gmail.

However, Google's "continuous beta" approach that it used to build those two products will not satisfy the customers of two new market segments that Google wants to win: smartphone software and enterprise software.

Smartphones

Let me start by saying that Google's move to create its own smartphone platform (Android) was a mystery to me from the beginning. It was unnecessary. Google could have simply focused on creating great mobile software and search products for all of the main smartphone platforms and it would have accomplished its primary goal, which was to create a mobile platform for AdWords.

I also doubted whether Google would be good at building a new smartphone platform, even with all of the smart engineers that it employs. The problem isn't that Google doesn't have enough brilliant engineers. The problem is that Google doesn't have the focus and attention to detail needed to build a great smartphone.

Google's organization and corporate culture are radically decentralized. There's not a lot of structure, process, or bureaucracy. The focus is on innovation and freelance creativity. That can make it a great place to work if you're an engineer and it makes Google great at building Internet widgets and exciting new features for its search platform.

But, smartphones require something different. They demand meticulous attention to the end-to-end experience of the user. To accomplish that, a company needs tight collaboration among all of the engineers working on the project, plus a disciplined management process to coordinate all of the details. Those are not Google's strengths, and it shows in the Android phones that have hit the market.

The T-Mobile G1 was Google's first attempt and while the device featured strong integration with Google's online services and a respectable touch-based interface, it struck out in several important areas. The hardware-software integration was clunky, the battery life was among the worst of any smartphone, and the software apps were sluggish and malfunctioned way too often.

I recently got a peek at the Google Ion, the second generation Android smartphone, and while the hardware-software integration is better and the UI has improvements, the application performance is still poor and much of the software is simply too sluggish and buggy. It feels like beta software. In fact, Google would have been better off naming the platform "Beta" rather than "Android" since beta is such a regular part of Google products. Unfortunately, beta isn't "good enough" for smartphones.

The other big problem for Google in smartphones is the hardware/software split. This applies to Windows Mobile, too. Google only makes the smartphone software, while companies like HTC and Samsung build the actual phones. The result is software that is built for lowest common denominator of devices, and that makes those devices far less intuitive and usable than devices such as the Palm Pre, Apple iPhone, and the various BlackBerry models where the hardware and software are tightly integrated.

This hardware/software split grows out of the idea of creating the same kind of commoditization that we see in the PC business, with Microsoft making Windows and vendors such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Acer supplying the computer hardware. The problem is that smartphones have far more variations in terms of interface (touchscreen, scroll wheel, stylus, etc.) and form factors. That means Android and Windows Mobile developers have to spend a lot of extra time building software that accounts for every possible hardware scenario or simply dumb-down the features of the software.

Enterprise

Another area where Google wants to make some noise in a new market is in enterprise business software, where the company peddles its Google Apps Premier as a way for businesses to save serious money over Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Office and achieve a higher level of worker collaboration.

If Google can grab even a small chunk of this market it would mean big money because of how widespread these Microsoft apps are. And if a company can avoid hosting its own infrastructure and instead purchase this software via subscription from Google, then it can move a significant line item in the IT budget from CAPEX to OPEX.

However, when IT departments do mass deployments of applications for business-critical tasks, they expect a high level of service. They expect the software to be bug-free, and if they do run into problems then they expect to be able to quickly connect with a customer support representative to resolve any issues immediately, if not sooner.

In order to pull off this type of experience that corporate IT demands, a software maker needs excellent attention to detail, strong processes and systems in place, and software that is "good enough" to provide a seamless experience for users. Again, delivering fully-packaged, mostly-bullet-proof software is not part of Google's DNA.

Another major consideration for enterprise IT is data security. Google still typically thinks like an Internet company, spreading data across multiple servers and continents for redundancy and performance. But, many big companies are under regulatory scrutiny and so they have to be able to document where their data is at all times and they need that data segmented from the data of any other companies.

For more insights on Google, smartphones, and other tech topics, follow my Twitter stream at twitter.com/jasonhiner

Bottom line

Don't misunderstand what I'm saying here. I'm not predicting Google's demise. Google's approach to innovation works well for building widgets and tools for the Internet and I expect Google to continue its dominance in those areas.

However, if Google wants to succeed in smartphones and business applications then it's going to have to create dedicated teams/departments within Google that are much more process-oriented and focused on product quality from end-to-end. The never-ending beta is not going to cut it in the smartphone world or the enterprise IT world

Topics: Google, Android, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobile OS, Smartphones, Software

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

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