How Google Kills and Misses Out

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You know you’re onto something when the name of your company becomes a colloquial verb. Sure, this has been said before, especially about Google, but it bears repeating. Google is an enormous corporation, but with epic size comes epic screw ups, and boy-howdy Google has made a few of them. Google outright killed one great startup, and gone on to miss out on several others.

Dodgeball – Ever play the location based social media game “Dodgeball”? No? Well, you never will. Because Google bought it and all but purposefully killed it. Dodgeball was created in the year 2000 by NYU students Alex Rainert and Dennis Crowley. Keep in mind that this before our modern, Web 2.0 of cloud, mobile apps, and online applications. So how did it work back then in the proverbial dot-com middle ages? It was text based, both literally and figuratively. A user would TXT their location to the Dodgeball service, which in turn would reply with crushes, friends, friends’ friends, and cool venues nearby. So what happened? Google bought them in 2005. What followed would be two years of incredible frustration for Rainert and Crowley as Google largely ignored their creation, deeming it unworthy of engineering resources necessary for upgrading it. Rainert and Crowley would finally quit in 2007. Dodgeball would continue to limp along as Google’s red-headed stepchild until January 2009 when Google finally pulled the plug. Why, you may ask, January 2009? Coincidence? Random decision? Not at all. Google simply wanted to clear the way for it’s groundbreaking Google Latitude service.

Foursquare – Think about it… a location-based, social networking game supported by a full-fledged website, with web-applications for multiple platforms, and even a TXT based interface for everyone else. It almost sounds like Dodgeball 2.0! And that’s exactly what it is. Dennis Crowley, one of the original two creators of Dodgeball, would go on to create Foursquare in March 2009, just two years after leaving Google. Do we really need to explain how Google missed out? Foursquare is what Dodgeball would have become if Google could have been bothered to give it some of the attention it was pouring into Google Latitude at the time. Since its launch, Foursquare has gathered a user base of 500,000. For any gamers in the audience, that makes Foursquare more popular than most of the MMORPG’s currently out there. Early this year, Foursquare even went from internet fad to mainstream when it inked deals with Bravo, Cande Naste, The New York Times, and Zagat. Foursquare could have been Google’s achievement, but they decided to let what they had languish and leave.

Gowalla – So what’s Gowalla? It’s effectively Foursquare’s top competitor. Both went toe to toe at SXSW in March 2010. Gowalla’s userbase is a fraction of Foursquare’s, but don’t let that fool you. One could argue though that it comes down to which city you’re in as to whether Foursquare or Gowalla is more popular. So what is Gowalla exactly? For one who hasn’t tried it, think of it as the next evolution in geo-caching. Of course, if you have no clue what geo-caching is, then that doesn’t help you. Gowalla is a game that rewards you for checking in at certain locations. These locations in turn can be combined into “trips” providing the user with a route to take when touring a city, barhopping, or hiking. Checking in requires a mobile app or logging in to Gowalla’s mobile website. Gowalla is much more stringent about making sure you’re checking in from where you actually are, so Gowalla has the advantage (in theory at least) of less cheaters. So how did Google miss out? They could have recovered from their Foursquare misjudgment by swooping in and picking up Gowalla, which just finished gathering up a hefty pile of venture capital. At it stands though, Google is continuing to rely on their Google Latitude service.

Google Latitude – If we’re going to be talking about these location aware mobile apps and how Google missed out or killed them, then we ought to talk about what Google actually went with. So, what is this amazing location aware service of Google’s? Google Latitude. And what does it do? Simple. It lets people know where you are. You choose how accurate your location is, and who has access to that information, but at the heart of it, yes, it simply lets Google Latitude users know where other Google Latitude users are. How popular is it? That’s a relative question. The service blends seamlessly into other Google services, and even uses Google Maps to report locations. Countless people have flipped the switch to check it out. But how many of those are actually using Latitude vs. those who just “left it on”? It’s difficult to say, but one at least wishes Google had been more imaginative when it came to doing their own location based social media service.

Twitter – Do we really need to explain what this is? It’s Twitter. It’s a mico-blogging/chat hybrid in which your posts are limited to just 140 characters. So yes, about a year ago there was noise that Google was looking into acquiring Twitter.  This would have granted Google unparalleled access to Twitter’s feed, which would in turn fuel Google’s search service. The deal, however, ultimately never went through.  The two companies shook hands, though, and a different deal was struck in which Google gained the ability to provide real-time tweets within its search results.  Here’s where it gets obnoxious though.  Google then turned around tried to create its own competing service, Google Buzz, which completely blew up in their face (and hit many of Google’s users with the shrapnel). If Google wanted a Twitter service that badly then they should have just rolled up their sleeves and wrote a check so big that Twitter couldn’t refuse.  To think they could outdo Twitter at twittering was simply arrogance.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: what Google is great at is creating services that work well with in the confines of Google’s own four walls. Google Buzz assumed everyone in the world likes each other. Google latitude might be neat for keeping track of your coworkers, but beyond that… it’s boring. Whether or not these services actually work in the outside world is a roll of the dice. Google does sometimes get it right though, and hopefully the future will bring more services like Gmail, and the Chrome Browser.

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