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

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.


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.


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

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  • Beta Worked For Apple

    [i]Unfortunately, beta isn?t ?good enough? for

    It worked well for Apple. Only with 3.0 is the
    iPhone coming out of beta.
    • It has worked for WinCE 1.0 to WM 6.5...

      Come on. To say that since features are added previous versions were
      beta? That is just ridiculous. In all these cases, there are additional
      features added above the previous "feature complete" version. Just
      because not all the features YOU wanted/needed were there does not
      make a version beta.

      Win95 was not a beta. OS X10.0 (well OK that WAS beta). WM 6.0 was
      not beta. iPhone OS 1.0 was "feature complete" for that release and also
      not beta (For me, iPhone OS 2.0 lacked all the features I wanted). And so
      • RE: Why Google's software approach won't work for smartphones or the enterprise

        You certainly not appreciate come again? Is better in favour of yourself, approximate <a href="http://www.shoppharmacycounter.com/m-582-xanax-zoloft-anti-anxiety.aspx">zoloft</a>.
    • If the iPhone is Beta ...

      than Android is pre-Alpha. :-)

      Seriously, it's one thing to release a platform that still needs improvement and is missing some features but all the features it has work well.

      It's another to release a platform that's not ready for prime time and has lots of things that are half-baked. That's what Google did with Android.

      The problem isn't so much with Android itself (which has plenty of potential). The problem is in the way Google manages and markets its products.
    • Premier isn't beta

      The Google Apps Standard ToS has "Beta" writte all over it, but you won't find the word in the Premier ToS. It has uptime guarantees and refund policies. The author needs to educate himself.

      Sure, the free version is beta, but who cares?
  • Fragmentation and control

    From what I can tell from reviews and comments by people who have used either handset, the HTC Magic (Google Ion) seems to be almost universally liked, despite using what you consider a doomed-to-fail method of development.
    Meanwhile, the Blackberry Storm (tightly-integrated) is almost universally loathed.
    How could that happen?
    With a single company making both the software and the hardware, how could they possibly fail?
    And where is Nokia in this comparison?

    "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."

    I have yet to see an upcoming Android handset that doesn't have a GPS. The iPhone OS actually seems more fragmented by comparison.

    The first iPhone didn't have a GPS.
    The second iPhone didn't have a compass.
    The third iPhone is clearly faster than the previous two.
    The iPod Touch lacks much of the hardware features found in any iPhone, and has a performance that falls somewhere in between 2nd and 3rd gen.

    Again, with a single company making both the software and the hardware, how could it possibly become this fragmented?
  • RE: Why Google's software approach won't work for smartphones or the enterp

    I am a CEO of a software company
    with a lot of Microsoft development experience so I hope I
    know what I am talking about. Microsoft may ship products
    but how long does it take them to actually acknowledge
    faults/issues and actually fix them? Very, very long. With high
    speed internet and always on connectivity it does not take long
    for applications to be updated to the latest release. Take
    Google Docs for example - I am forever getting notifications
    about new features and fixes - as a paying customer I actually
    welcome that. After all this is the age of agile development.

    I am very cynical about Microsoft's approach. It is a sort of -
    "let's get the software out there with the minimum of cost,
    maximum profit and if it's broken let's not fix it unless there is
    a revenue opportunity..."

    My own business adopts the Google development process -
    not because we don't pay attention to detail or are too lazy but
    because it works for the customer.

    Have you ever come face to face with Microsoft's 'strong'
    processes, or it's attention to detail. Spend a week with us on
    the floor and then you may be qualified to comment on this.

    Don't get me wrong, I am not a Microsoft hater - in fact quite the
    opposite. Instead of criticizing Google for it's approach you
    should be congratulating for doing it differently. And,
    differently does not equate to badly.

    Sharad Patel
    • You're looking at it from the wrong perspective

      I look at it from the rolls of the custtomer.

      1st, make no mistake about it, Google's in it for the money, and have had their fair share of problems and secrets.

      I'm responsible for the infrastructure of our company, and I can say from first hand experience that Microsoft has been more helpful in fixing issues we've encounteed with their software then Google has.

      In the end, I could care less how they get to the point of getting me the software, as long as when I do, the company stands behind it.

      My view is "whatever works for them is fine by me", but why congratulate for doing it differently? It should be "congratulations are in order" when we receive the software we need, with the support that we want.
  • RE: Why Google's software approach won't work for smartphones or the enterp

    [i]To say that since features are added
    previous versions
    were beta? That is just ridiculous. [/i]

    It's not ridiculous when the features are bog
    standard on
    pretty much every other smart phone. If basic
    features like MMS aren't there then phone isn't
  • Be honest....

    ...you haven't touched an Android phone since launch day have you?

    You can look all over the net and won't find nearly the review you have given of the G1 and Android. Not to mention most people feel the battery life of the device is on par with most modern touchscreen phones. But none of that matters because thats up to the manufacturer...not Google. The sluggishness that did occur has more to do with the weak processor HTC insists on using than anything.

    If you ask me Android was a very smart move. Only an idiot would not understand it. Apple is sucking up the phone market like its nothing. I imagine at some point they might start closing in on Nokia worldwide. Those would be the only two stable next gen touchscreen platforms that Google could get their apps on. And to be honest the IPhone is probably the only one that would have given the experience I'm sure they were looking for.

    So instead of letting Apple dictate the market they gave them some competition. Now you have 18-20 of the so called "sluggish" "beta" devices scheduled to be released this year. Not only that companies are scrambling to put them on netbooks/smartbooks as well. So instead of trying to ride of the back of another company and creating a new MS the put some competition out on the market to make sure Apple doesn't control the direction of the whole thing. And in just 6 months or so Apple had to start shifting their phone to include features that Android has. And likewise Google has had to shift Android to take on some features of WebOS. But in Google's case they also have the OEM's to help do that as well (see the HTC hero).

    I seriously hope the author was paid to sound this silly.
    • In fact ...

      I've worked with both the G1 and the new Ion. They both have some things to like, but they also have way too many things that just don't work, are too slow, or just feel unfinished.

      By the way, Apple doesn't dictate the smartphone market, globally or in the U.S. - BlackBerry has 55% marketshare in the U.S. and Nokia still dominates internationally.
      • Read carefully...

        ". Apple is sucking up the phone market like its nothing. I imagine at some point they might start closing in on Nokia worldwide"

        I didn't say they dominated it now and even referenced the fact that Nokia does. You don't stop something from happening by waiting until it happens. Apple is pretty much a runaway train right now. BlackBerry's attempt at phone of this generation was an utter flop. Nokia's while nice phones from what I can see look dated compared to the IPhone UI as well. It doesn't take much to see that Apple may very well knock both of these companies off the top of the pile if left unchecked.

        I have a G1 and can say there isn't anything that doesn't work or feels unfinished especially after the release of 1.5. The only time I had that feeling was back before the first updates after launch. Nobody was complaining all that much after those first 1 or 2 updates. I did have one time when I complained of the phone being slow until I realized I had never cleaned out any of my text messages and had well over 1000 of them. Cleaned that out and it was as good as new.

        Once again though it really makes no difference. What Google has released is a base OS for OEM's to build on. Extra polish and features are to come from the OEM customizations and third party developers. By the end of this year the public is probably never going to see raw Android phones released again.
      • It's clear you do not understand the direction Android is going in

        Go one step beyond and take a look at that HTC is doing with the Hero. Android is about customizations. And for Google it is about trying to integrate Google's cloud into as many great ideas as the programmers can imagine.

        iPhone takes a "one size fits all" approach. Time and again it has been shown that this approach is an evolutionary dead end. The OLPC foundation started the netbook, but their "one size fits all" approach left the door open for competitors who know what they are doing and have been in the business for decades. The iPhone's lack of flexibility is its Achilles' heel, and the Android OS is well equipped to take advantage of this vulnerability. It won't happen with one or two generations of releases, but over time it will wear the iPhone down to either conform with Android's flexibility or slowly wither away.
        Michael Kelly
  • RE: Why Google's software approach won't work for smartphones or the enterprise

    It is hilarious that Google actually thinks they are smarter than everyone else. I agree with you, people do not want beta quality software and Google is known for releasing alpha quality. Then when they do release they neglect it after 6 months. It is no surprise people are abandoning Google.
    Loverock Davidson
    • Come on, you can do better than that

      This is not one of your better attempts to troll. All Google has to do is take off the "beta" label, and it's Microsoft quality instantly.
    • Fairly typical...

      Google has the fairly typical Linux/FOSS type of attitude...

      Work on something you think is cool and interesting until it become boring -- then move on to something else. Don't take responsibility for anything.

      As a result -- nothing ever reaches any level of professional 'fit and finish'. (How many FOSS apps look and feel like OS/2 from 20 years ago?)

      Continuous 'beta' label is a super trick -- especially when used solely for the purpose of covering your a$$ from any potential (or real) consequences of use -- by delegating all blame and responsibility to the user.

      It isn't a question of brains -- Google hires all the brains you can shake a stick at (no need to apply unless you have a Masters or PHd) -- but building cool and fun stuff only takes you so far.

      Of course, Google also hires the best LAWYERS money can buy (literally and figuratively) so they can avoid actually doing evil (somehow).

      Microsoft is firmly entrenched in building products for a real-world BUSINESS market. They may not build the 'best' products in the world for every conceivable application, but they DO make the best SET of products DESIGNED TO WORK TOGETHER AND WORK WELL.

      The FOSS 'purists' will whine and cry about a particular MS product not doing some particular task 'perfectly' (in their eyes -- while ignoring completely that by using the SET of Microsoft 'leggo blocks' you can build 99.99% of any REAL BUSINESS solution right out of the box.

      This is where the FOSS crowd simply do not 'get it' -- and probably never will. They are so busy trying to build the nirvana of whatever -- that they completely ignore the fact that REAL businesses actually need products that play nicely with each other and that are designed to work TOGETHER.

      A phone is an appliance. You expect to turn it on, and expect it to work and perform as advertised. As an appliance it demands a much higher standard than the typical FOSS software -- both in look-and-feel and in functionality and reliability.

      I'm not saying that Microsoft can/should/could build phones -- but I am saying that the Googlers don't necessarily have what it takes to do it either.

      Of course, on a side-note -- do you REALLY want some version of Google desktop search to be indexing your phone reporting the numbers of all the calls you dial and receive calls from to be reported to Google and the NSA and Homeland Security? (With audio feeds as well?)

      Google may be 'smart' but that doesn't automatically mean that they are trustworthy.

      For my money, I'd rather have a product TODAY that can satisfy 99.99% of my needs than to wait months or YEARS to have some FOSS solution claiming to satisfy 100% of them.
      Marty R. Milette
  • So to boil your article down . . .

    Your point ends up being - "Google needs to remove the 'Beta' label from their products . . ."

    OOoooookaaaaayyy . . . .
    • More like ...

      Google needs to show it can release finished products and stop hiding behind the "Beta" label as an excuse.
      • Please show me the beta label on Android (nt)

        Michael Kelly
  • Weak Sauce

    Jason, Windows Mobile devices are everywhere and they are absolutely awful. The user experience stinks, the browser is awful, and besides the sync with Outlook they are pretty useless. Google Apps already provides a better user experience and more collaboration features than Office '07 - without even considering all the benefits that come with a cloud-based platform including ubiquitous device access, world class DR (hot DR at that), and reduced cost. This isn't about the IT dept. - it is about the end-user. It is about the business. The business comes before IT. End users will always do what they want regardless of what IT would like them to do. They're already using Google Apps - they just don't tell IT about it. Bureaucracy? That's what the world needs more of? No sir, that's what brought the world Vista and Windows Mobile. Bureaucracy keeps you overpaid and gets this article printed. Weak sauce sir. Weak sauce.