The problem with Google

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.


Yikes, that’s a fair while without an update. I had a long period of crazy working hours, but hopefully that’s coming to an end now, and I’ll have more time to spend on personal stuff like this site. Or maybe I’ll just spend it all playing Counter-Strike Source. Such a dumb game, but I am perversely addicted to it. I’ve been playing around with JavaScript / DHTML lately have produced a couple of demos/experiements: Cloudy Daze and Zooming Form Fields. Nothing revolutionary, but they’re helping to get me into the JS mindset. I also purchased a copy of Fireworks recently, so I’ll be getting back into design and attempting to create a bespoke WordPress theme for this blog. I have a bunch of iStockphoto credits to use up before the end of the year, so anticipate it being stockphototastic. That is a real word.

Internet Explored

Weird article on Slashdot today, claiming “IE8 May Be End of the Line For Internet Explorer“. It links to a blog post by some guy called Randall C. Kennedy who explains how he’s been hearing that Microsoft are thinking of moving to Webkit, or even their brand new research browser called Gazelle. Now, I may not have the hot industry contacts that Randall C. Kennedy undoubtedly has, but I find the whole story a little hard to swallow. Firstly, Kennedy (and Slashdot) seem to be a little confused over the separation between a browser and its layout engine. Internet Explorer is a browser, but it uses a layout engine called Trident to perform the actual rendering of websites. Trident can also be used externally to IE, by Windows applications that need to display HTML. Webkit is also a layout engine, one that is used by Apple’s Safari browser, and Google’s Chrome browser. It is entirely concievable therefore, that IE could switch its layout engine to Webkit and still be “Internet Explorer”. I don’t think it’s likely, I don’t believe Microsoft would want to such a crucial component of a Windows system relying on what is still a mainly Apple controlled project. Especially since they’d still have to support Trident anyway, due to the mass of legacy code that would require it.

It’s the mention of Gazelle that is really confusing. Gazelle is an experimental browser from Microsoft Research, that takes a more OS-like approach to architecting the browser, and is supposedly more secure and reliable. What the article seems to miss though is that according to the Gazelle technical document…

“We have built an IE-based prototype that realizes Gazelle‚Äôs multi-principal OS architecture and at the
same time utilizes all the backward-compatible parsing, DOM management, and JavaScript interpretation
that already exist in IE.”

In other words, Gazelle uses Trident for its layout engine! So even if IE 9 was based on Gazelle, there’d still be a mass of the old IE technology hanging aroudn. I suppose it’s possible that they could rip Trident out of Gazelle and use Webkit instead, but it seems a highly unlikely scenario. For one thing, if they were going to do so, why not do it from the start? Gazelle is a relatively new project, and if they knew Webkit was the direction they were planning to go, it would make sense to choose it from the start.

Overall, I think it’s quite likely Microsoft will adopt Gazelle, or something similar, for a later version of IE (perhaps not IE9 though). It’s architecture is the way most browsers seem to be going. But I think any announcements on the death of Trident, or of the “Internet Explorer” brand are highly premature.