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Follow the DNA

TechMeme is buzzing about the recent article on Google, “So much fanfare, so few hits.”

The main thrust of the article is that recently the hype has been getting ahead of Google’s actual offerings. Don Dodge lays out a general theory here on how the hype cycle has been working over the last couple years. Of course, when it comes to hype in technology often the best idea is to ignore it if you’re most interested in the fundamentals. Again, Don makes a similar pitch in his post. He suggests that the better bet is to watch where the money is. I’d add into the mix that on the technology side you need to “watch the DNA.”

At the core, how is Google trying to solve problems? Even if an offering ranks low in a feature count comparison, what is at the core of the product? Is that core scalable? Is the core practical to manage? Is the DNA aligned with growth in the market?

In technology DNA is hard to shake. I often tell people if you want to see where a product is ultimately going to pan out, unwind the clock and look at the first code ever written for the product. It’s often quite telling.

Anyway, back to Google. We all probably agree that Google has done very well with two things so far: Web page search and text-based advertising. Although some lump these into one, I’d argue they are two distinct products, both which are extremely successful–technically and financially. (I realize some label them under the same “Search” heading, but let’s just agree to disagree on this one.)

Beyond these two offerings, there’s a bit more disagreement about where Google ranks on the success meter. Is GMail a success? What about news.google.com? I’d say yes, others would argue no. After all, Google News doesn’t generate revenue and GMail doesn’t have as many subscribers as Yahoo mail or Hotmail. True, but then again, I can’t imagine monitoring news without Google News. And GMail had such significant impact that it changed the marketplace when it comes to online email. Is GMail good enough. Absolutely not. It needs a better interface, continued improvements in the editor (such as better support for images and thus indirect support for ink), and now with Google Checkout better support for multiple email accounts and thus multiple charge accounts.

In terms of the rest of the services, Blog Search is not too bad. It does a pretty good job at bypassing spam blogs, however, it does need to keep improving its indexing reach. I also believe that searches such as Google Blog Search and Google News need to get their act together–and fast–in terms of merging in support for video and podcasts. Let’s say there’s more to do here.

And an analysis of Google products cannot forget the Google Toolbar, Google Desktop Search, and to a lesser degree Google Sidebar–each has forced responses from other companies in the ecosystem. Of the three, I only use Google Toolbar day in and day out (for the pop up blocking, quick Google search feature, and spell checker), but the other two also have to be given the nod for reminding others to keep working.

Now what about Google Spreadsheets and the forthcoming Writely? Some are arguing that Google is losing their way. (I have a developer friend of mine that has insisted this was the case the minute Google added calculator features to its search). First, let me take the case of Writely. Some people argue that Google is crazy for tyring to put a word processor app on the web. This is a no-brainer. I say not so fast. Why? Because stop and look how authoring is becoming of greater and greater use on the web. Look at the bloggers. Look at all the people using browser-based email. These users need a quality editing experience. Writely is one more step in that direction. Will Writely replace Word? Who knows. Will better word processors replace today’s DHTML editors? You bet. And don’t forget it’s to Google’s advertising advantage for all of us to spend more time in the browser, right next to their advertising.

Google Spreadsheets may be a little harder to justify, but then again, when you’re in a competitive race with others and you’re trying to learn all you can about what is feasible and each project doesn’t take too many resources for you, but will for established competitors that decide to respond, the reasoning becomes more, well, reasonable.

Is Google making a big mistake by opening itself up to make little mistakes? I think Google is smart in trying. In business though, often the secret to success is adapting to market needs. Don’t stay still. In this area Microsoft has done very well over the years. Now we’ll see if Google has learned how.

Loren Heiny (1961 - 2010) was a software developer and author of several computer language textbooks. He graduated from Arizona State University in computer science. His first love was robotics.

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