Trust No One: Google, Apple and Failure

 » March 22nd, 2013

The Google Graveyard  is making the rounds again, as it often does when a venerated Google product gets the axe.

I’m none-too-happy about Google shutting down Reader, and I may have shown up at the cemetery expecting to be enraged about all of the great products that Google has killed over the years. The more I looked around, though, the more I realized that these graves may be showing us what a company needs to do to compete in web services as Google does – all the product killing is just an irritating byproduct of something much more important: failure. Google produces some terrific products; from the looks of it, part of that process includes taking a risk on things and a real willingness to fail.

This doesn’t mean that axing Reader was a smart move – it feels cynical and it certainly doesn’t square with the relaxed-and-helpful-friend persona Google tries to project. It is, however, a fascinating angle when you look at Apple’s recent inability to really pull off something great service-wise.

Google, it seems, is launching a new product every day. Some of them take off, others don’t, and – this is the most important part – Google doesn’t set themselves up to be mortally wounded when some of their products fizzle. Some of their more high-profile launches have certainly left them open to an internet’s worth of mockery, but excepting perhaps Google+’s inability to gain real traction, few observers fret about what these failures mean for Google’s long term prospects.

Now let’s compare this with the way Apple launches their services: Siri, Maps, Ping, iCloud – these were all major announcements and Apple bet heavily on each them (maybe less so on Ping). The failure of Maps has cost Apple dearly. They launch fewer services and expose themselves to significantly more damage if these services fail. There are a number of reasons for this, but not the least of which is that Apple is very selective about what they devote resources to; they simply do fewer discrete things.

Despite all of the ways in which they compete, Google and Apple are very different companies and they make their money in very different ways. Search is still almost certainly Google’s golden goose. They seem careful to risk failure in products that may complement search but wouldn’t weaken it if they fail. Apple’s history is in hardware, and it’s also where most of their money comes from – it is reasonable that a hardware company would be adverse to a scattershot approach.

Apple’s problem arises if their future depends significantly on their service offerings as well. If that’s the case, they may need to come up with a way of failing more gracefully. This feels antithetical to what Apple is supposed to be all about, but it may also be their best shot. Apple has been compared to a jilted lover, unwilling to be dependent on other companies; self-reliant and unable to truly trust anyone else. A services-oriented Apple may need to hedge further and add themselves to the list of entities they can’t completely trust.