Generally speaking, I like Google and I like Google products. I like the web, and I’m glad there’s a company such as Google who are so invested in it as a platform, and determined to push it forward. And yet, sometimes I’m baffled by Google’s seemingly half-hearted commitment to developing some of their flagship products, especially when it seems to be hurting the arrival of the web-centric world they want and need.

Google Docs is, I think, a particularly standout example. It was launched in late 2006 and initially consisted of a web-based word processor and spreadsheet that had been acquired from a couple of startups. This, it appeared, was Google’s big play to break Microsoft’s Windows/Office symbiotic stranglehold, and prove that the web was a viable platform that could compete with the desktop. The future looked very interesting indeed. And then… what happened? Presentations were added mid-2007, again taken from a startup, and a form builder was added somewhere along the way. New features and enhancements occasionally trickled out, but major improvements and game-changing innovations just never occurred. It’s telling that in the wikipedia article on Google Docs the two most recent items in the history section are:

On September 17, 2007, Google released their presentation program product for Google Docs.

On July 6th, 2009, Google announced on their official blog that Google Docs along with other Google Apps would be taken out of beta.

That’s it. In the two years after adding presentations, the only change anybody thought worthy of putting into Wikipedia was that Google had dropped the beta label. And this was something they did on most of their products as a way to encourage their adoption by businesses, not a reflection of any great change to the underlying products themselves.

Meanwhile, Microsoft were hardly standing still. The 2007 release of Office tore up the rulebook to deliver a new look and feel and a radically different ribbon-based user interface. The entire product was overhauled to provide a far slicker and attractive experience, and to bring previously hidden functionality to the fore. 2010 will see another new version of Office, and while its changes will not be as monumental as 2007’s were, having used the beta I can say that the enhancements still put to shame the miniscule improvements there has been to Google Docs in the same period.

Now, Google Docs may never be able to compete on a feature for feature basis with a desktop product like Microsoft Word, at least not while still having to maintain compatibility with older browsers like IE6 and 7, but it seems to me like they’re not even really trying, and that’s what’s really disturbing. Google should be the setting the pace for complex, bleeding-edge web development. Their engineers should be making the most of the web deployment model to push out major enhancements to users at a rate Microsoft can only dream of. They should be paying graphic designers to reinvent the interface of Google Docs, combining the lessons of the Microsoft’s ribbon interface, with the natural flows of the web, and their own innovations, to produce a revolutionary user experience. You should be checking Google products every day to see what marvels they have delivered, and pinching yourself and going ‘that’s a web application!?’ every time. Instead, every time you load up Google Docs you get the same lame imitation of a 1990s desktop word processor, and nothing ever changes.

At this point, you may be screaming ‘Google Wave!’ And sure, Wave is an exciting product, and a great showcase for what web apps can be, but it’s one product, amongst the hundreds that Google develop. Wave is exceptional, when it shouldn’t be exceptional at all. Google has almost 20,000 employees, many of whom (we’re told) are some of the smartest programmers on the planet, is this really the best the can do? It seems to point to either an under-resourcing of important product teams or, more worryingly, a real lack of vision and ambition that has infected the whole company. Whatever it is, I hope they fix it, and Google starts to push its products along much harder and much more quickly.