Google is often its own worst enemy

From Google Now to its notification-centric smartwatch vision, it's astonishing how willing Google is to ditch great ideas instead of nurturing them to maturity.

Google Enemy
redhead_pueppi / JR Raphael

Once upon a time, smartwatches were going to be the Next Big Thing™ — the future of mobile computing that'd replace smartphones as our go-to gadgets and upend the way we lived, worked, and played.

Yeah. So much for that.

Just like the more recent chatbot "revolution," all the hype surrounding smartwatches failed to materialize into anything meaningful. These days, most smartwatches are glorified fitness trackers and email checkers. They're nowhere near as pervasive as tech prophets once predicted, and even when they are present on a person's wrist, they tend to be anything but transformative.

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Google is in the midst of attempting to give its wearable platform a fresh start. The company recently announced a rebranding of Android Wear to the far more generic "Wear OS" — a move that, by all counts, seems to be about communicating the software's cross-platform support as much as anything.

But Google's real problems with Wear run much deeper than its name. Google's lack of focus and conviction with its own vision snuffed out the spark and promise present in the platform's earlier days. And Wear is far from the only instance where an inability to commit and stick to its guns has sent Google down an ill-advised path.

Context without conviction: A classic Google conundrum

At the beginning, Android Wear had a secret weapon no other smartwatch had managed to master: context.

In writing about Wear ahead of its release, I said the killer feature that'd set a smartwatch apart and turn it into a genuinely useful gadget was smart context — the type of predictive intelligence Google alone excelled at providing:

[It would be] Google Now — only optimized for your wrist and made more useful than ever. Cards popping up with info you need before you ever ask for it. Intelligent reminders based on where you are, what you're doing, and where you're going next.

Those of us who use Android are already familiar with how useful Google Now can be — but on a phone, it's inherently limited to being useful only when you pick up and look at the device. On a watch, that barrier is essentially eliminated.

Android Wear's initial implementation certainly wasn't perfect (and the early hardware had ample room for improvement), but the overall focus was spot on. At their core, smartwatches are most useful as systems for letting you quickly catch up with pertinent info — whether it's an incoming notification or a heads-up about heavy traffic to a place you're likely heading.

As I put it in my initial Wear review:

What makes the info special is the fact that it shows up when you need it — before you even think to ask. And while that same sort of info is available with a few swipes on an Android phone, having it on your wrist really does change the way you experience it.

This is because Wear puts contextual info front and center — and consequently makes it feel like a natural extension of your body as opposed to an out-of-the-way interruption. Add at-a-glance access to notification-based cards like text messages and emails, and you've got a pretty compelling framework for a wearable-tech platform.

But then, the Apple Watch came along, complete with its overly complicated interface and app-centric nature (something Apple would refine somewhat over time but that was almost laughably bad in the beginning). And Google, rather than sticking to the parts of its platform that made sense, decided to revamp Wear entirely and parrot Apple's flawed approach.

With 2017's Wear 2.0 update, Android Wear lost the core element that made it sensible as a wearable operating system — the focus on easily glanceable info from both notifications and predictive intelligence — and instead put the focus on things that sound impressive in ads but don't make for a great real-world experience on a tiny wrist-based screen: complicated standalone apps, cramped on-screen keyboards, and notifications that don't appear in a glanceable way and require multiple taps and interactions to process.

Like Apple, Google started approaching the smartwatch as if it were a tiny phone on your wrist. But the way we interact with one type of technology doesn't necessarily carry over to another. At the base level, at least, Google got it right in the beginning but then failed to stick with its vision. Rather than finding a way to refine and then market its concept and make sure people understood why it made sense, Google gave up and blindly emulated Apple instead.

It wouldn't be the first or the last time such a pattern would emerge.

When Google gets in Google's way

We talked about Google Now's missed potential with smartwatches, but Google Now itself is a prime example of Google having something exceptional and then failing to follow through with it.

When Google Now first appeared on Android phones in 2012, it was heralded as "the predictive future of search." It brought the countless tidbits Google knows about our lives and our world together in a fantastically useful way — a way no company other than Google could truly pull off.

Now? Google Now has been lazily rebranded as "the feed" (not even important enough to warrant being a proper noun) and is basically just another stream of news stories you can scroll through.

And why did that change happen? By all counts, Google gave up on its unique vision in order to chase competitors like Facebook in the race for cheap attention. In doing so, it once again lost that special spark, as I wrote last fall:

Five years ago, Google Now felt like the future. Today, the Google feed feels like the past — like a mildly different spin on a ubiquitous concept and a step backwards from what Google achieved when it put the full power of its resources front and center.

There are countless other examples of Google acting as its own worst enemy and failing to follow through with a commendable initial vision. Look at the company's never-ending messaging mess, for instance, or the awkward implementation of Apple-like app shortcuts in Android 7.1. In the latter case, as I said at the time, "instead of thinking through what'd be the most sensible and user-friendly way for a feature like this to work, Google seemed to just emulate the way Apple did it." See the pattern?

To a degree, a company being flexible and open to the evolution of its products — even when said transformation blatantly revolves around "borrowing" inspiration from other sources — can be an asset. But there's also something to be said for having the stones to stand by the value of your own ideas and remaining willing to recognize when you've got a good thing going, even if that thing requires a mix of refinement and promotion to reach its potential.

Unless Google manages to master the art of commitment and conviction, this pattern is doomed to continue — and the company is only going to keep getting in its own way.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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