Tag Archives: gmail

Google on innovation – or should that be copying?

Patrick Copeland, Google Director of Engineering, gave the keynote at QCon London this morning. His theme was innovation: how it works at Google and elsewhere.

I was expecting some background on Google’s famous 20% time, where employees spent up to one day a week on something not in their job description, but I don’t think Copeland even mentioned it. In fact, he almost argued against it. There is no shortage of bright ideas, he said, and Google has over 100,000 of them in a database; but what matters is not idea, but innovators who have the ability to take a good idea and make it into a product.

He added that whatever “it” may be, building the right “it” is more important than building “it” right. If what you build is the wrong thing, it will not succeed, whereas the right idea will sometimes succeed despite poor implementation. Twitter and its well-known fail whale comes to mind.

Google’s record on innovation is mixed. You can make a long list of Google projects that have failed, from Lively – a kind of Second Life clone – to Google Wave. “You want to fast fail when things aren’t working” said Copeland, making the best of it.

On the other hand, Copeland mentioned GMail as a positive example. I would quibble a bit with this: was GMail innovation, or simply Hotmail done right?

Copeland also mentioned two other examples. The Chrome browser, he said, had two goals: to streamline the user interface so less screen space was wasted, and to have a fast JavaScript engine to show off Google apps. He also observed that rival browsers have copied both ideas; and it is true that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9, which will be released on March 14, happens to have both these features.

What about Android? Copeland said that the Android strategy vs Apple is similar to that of the clone PCs vs IBM in the eighties. He tried to make a point of innovation here, observing that IBM could not compete with innovation from many independent vendors, but this seems to me a stretch. The point about the clone PCs was that they were kind-of the same as the IBM PC but cheaper and faster. It was more about copying than about innovating. I think you can see this playing out with Apple vs Android to some extent, in that there are customers who will end up with an Android smartphone or tablet because it is kind-of the same as an iPhone or iPad but cheaper or with better specifications.

On the other hand, Apple is doing a better job at differentiation than IBM achieved with its PC; and technically iPhone apps do not run on Android so the parallel is far from exact. Many of the same apps are available for both iPhone and Android, so from user’s perspective there is some similarity.

The quick summary then: most innovations fail, and you need innovators rather than simply bright idea. The implication is that successful innovation happens when you have a company with lots of money to spend on projects that will likely fail, and that has a culture which attracts innovators. Google ticks both boxes.

Incidentally, when I asked how Google identifies its innovators Copeland said that you do not need to. They make a nuisance of themselves, so if you have them, you know.

Another cloud fail: disappearing Google accounts

Every time a story like this runs it sets back cloud computing. Many users of Google Mail reported yesterday a problem with missing email:

I was on my eMail normally and when I refreshed all my account settings, eMail, labels, contacts etc has just disappeared.

Google’s App Status Dashboard has a series of updates:


It does say that the issue affects “less than 0.08% of the Google Mail userbase”. While that does not sound much, if Google Mail has 150 million users that would be 120,000 people. Of those accounts, only a proportion will be critical as some of us use Gmail only casually; but some people are severely inconvenienced:

This really is wildly inconvenient and worrisome, though. I rely on my Gmail an enormous amount for my job, and not having access to it is really crippling me. I can’t even do my work at this point, because all the material I need is in attachments on Gmail, so all I can do is wait until I (hopefully) get it back! I suppose I should have saved my files to my computer, but hindsight is 20/20.

Google is indicating that it will restore the data soon though it is all rather vague.

Of course there are also failed Exchange Servers and the like out there; sometimes backups fail too and data is lost. Cloud providers like Google do tend to lack transparency though, making times like this anxious ones for those who are affected.

The real lesson: if you have data you really care about, keep it in more than one place.