Google’s Graveyard: Why The Company Won’t Stop Killing Your Favorite Apps
I am a sucker for superhero movies. I love them in all their predictable and cheesy glory. One of my favorite lines from “The Dark Knight” comes courtesy of Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart). He says, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. It is a statement that is relatable in a lot of ways to almost all of us. Eventually, the world forces us to adapt, at times making us shells of what we used to be. We see this in our relationships with one another and we see some of our favorite brands make these sorts of shifts that go against the identity that we have crafted for them. This is a shift that Google seems to be going through that has angered many of its loyal fans. A new reality is that Google is no longer the fun company that we knew a decade ago, and its moves recently became an indication of this.
Making Difficult Decisions
There have been two decisions that Google has made this year that have made many longtime Google fans grab their proverbial pitchforks in outrage. The first was the slow and painful phasing out of Google Play Music. The second was the decision by Google to take away unlimited “high quality” uploads from Google Photos. These two moves have both a logical explanation and inspired rage in many Google fans. The notion and criticism are that Google is getting greedy. That the company is trying to be too much like Apple.
Let’s take a look at what these changes mean for users of these two platforms. Starting with the death of Google Play Music. Most users of Google Play Music entered 2020 with the knowledge that the service would go away by the end of the year, as Google announced this months ago. The reason? Google had seen its service become a bit irrelevant when compared to Apple Music and Spotify, it felt that it was time for a reinvention. That reinvention was YouTube Music. Google thought that leveraging the YouTube brand to parlay music and video would be the advantage that they needed to compete with Spotify and Apple.
Google had found itself in a position where the direction of a streaming music service was dictated on algorithms and recommendation engines. Google Play Music had established itself in the first wave of streaming services, the ones that mimicked the dynamic of an MP3 player in the sense that everything was accessed through the library and new songs were routed to the library by default. However as Spotify became the largest music streaming service in the world, it became clear that the preference was suggested playlists and Google felt the need to uproot its music streaming service and rebuild from the ground up. And there have been bumps in the road (which we’ll get to in a bit).
The second change that Google has instituted surrounds its very popular photo gallery application Google Photos. For years, Google offered users two backup options when using the app. The first was to store photos and videos at their original resolution, which would go against the user’s Google Drive storage. The other, and the more popular, option was to back up using what Google called high quality. This was unlimited with compressed backups, limiting videos to 1080p and photos to 12MP. This was convenient as the quality was still more than enough for viewing on a phone or tablet, which was enough for most people. Google then decided that this would no longer be the case and high-quality uploads would now count against Google Drive storage.
So why did Google do this? Unlike in the case of Google Play Music, there was no competition to catch up with. Quite the contrary, as Google Photos has eliminated most of the other photo backup solutions in the market except for iCloud and Microsoft’s OneDrive. The answer here is bandwidth. Each Google user has gigabytes upon gigabytes of photos that have been backed up for free, for years. After a while, there was bound to be some strain put on the servers. As such, they are making this change starting in June of 2021. Google has stated pretty openly that the reason is storage strain on its servers. Many Google fans and users however are not buying this at all, citing Google’s greed and incompetence as a motivating factor for ruining services that they love. The reality is that Google is not the same company that we all fell in love with all those years ago.
My first experience with being mad at Google for killing a product was back in July 2013 when the company decided to kill off its news aggregator Google Reader. For those unfamiliar, Google Reader was a news aggregator. Where you would input your favorite blogs and websites and it would show all the articles posted by them in chronological order. At the time, the reasoning for killing off the service seemed unknown. But in hindsight, Google was shifting more to a mobile strategy that emphasized Google Search as a news source based on search history. That shift was the foundation for the Google Discover feed that you see today on Google’s search app on mobile.
The bottom line is that Google is going to bless us with cloud services and products that we will love until it is no longer logical or profitable for them to do so. A prime example of this was Inbox, Google’s experimental email solution that introduced categories for easier email management. This was always a testing app that would see itself ported to Google’s main email solution Gmail. Google’s strategy seems to be to offer an excellent service until people cannot live without it and then make a change that most will stick with because they have become so accustomed to using those services.
When it comes to Google Play Music I have seen many friends and colleagues make the transition to YouTube Music, mostly with negative feedback. Complaints that the app is poorly designed, having a variety of strange bugs, or just plainly not being Google Play Music. So I would ask these friends why not switch to Spotify or Apple Music if the experience is that bad? The answer is usually one of two explanations. The first is that there is so much music that has been accumulated over the years that it would be a pain to start over on a new service. The second reason is that Google Play Music and YouTube Music by extension offer paying subscribers YouTube Premium, an ad-free YouTube viewing experience that is nearly impossible to leave once you have become accustomed to not seeing ads while watching YouTube. So in a way, these users are stuck using a service they may deem to be inferior because Google has conditioned them to.
The Google Photos shift is more about Google propping up a different service as opposed to conditioning users. Google unveiled Google One, the rebranded paid tier of Google Drive storage, in August of 2018. Since then the company has tried to lure people into paying for more Google Drive storage by offering free trials and incentives once a user starts paying for the service. Google has determined that it wants more people to pay for more cloud storage as yet another recurring revenue stream. What better way to do this than using the thing that usually takes up the most storage on phones, photos.
While Google kills products all the time and replaces them with new solutions, the tinkering with the companies strategy on music and photos seems to be getting the most attention. The reason for this most likely is the emotional attachment that we derive from our favorite music and from looking at our old memories through photos. Any change to the way that we indulge in these bits of media is sure to invoke a reaction. But Google is in the business of profiting from users regardless of how much users may disapprove.
The Next Service to Die
This leaves the question of what is the next Google service that may have seen its last days? While it is tough to prognosticate what the next service from the company will be canceled or transitioned into something different it is almost assured that there will be new services announced and some to be canceled. That being said, here are some services that I could see looking very different in a few years.
In late 2019, Google acquired Fitbit for $2.1 billion. This move has yet to bring much change outside of allowing newer Fitbit watches to have access to the Google Assistant. However, besides that, there does not seem to be full integration of Fitbit into Google’s suite of apps and services. When Google does finally integrate Fitbit’s tech, one could imagine the killing of both WearOS and Google Fit. WearOS has long been a distant 4th place in the smartwatch race behind Watch OS from Apple, Tizen from Samsung, and Fitbit. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Google would decide to shut down WearOS and focus on Fitbit moving forward. This same logic applies to Google Fit, Google’s health tracking app. If the focus is on Fitbit moving forward, Google Fit users will likely be left out in the cold.
Another service that could be heading down the road to the Google graveyard is Stadia. For those unfamiliar, Stadia is Google’s foray in the cloud gaming arena where gaming is executed by using a variety of high-powered internet servers as opposed to the internal hardware. The appeal of this model is obvious, as a high-end gaming PC setup would not be required to ensure a high-quality gaming experience. Stadia has experienced a lukewarm reception with latency issues and lack of content often cited as shortcomings of the service. With competition from NVIDIA and Microsoft with similar services, the future viability of this platform seems to be in jeopardy. This lack of adoption is something that Google can attribute as a failed experiment as opposed to the early days of a new category. Which would make its potential death by Google not a surprising one.
Lastly, we could eventually see the further diminishment of Google-made mobile hardware such as Pixel phones and Pixelbook laptops. Google’s hardware in the phone and laptop space have never been massive unit successes, and may only exist to drive innovation from Google’s hardware partners. Yet a company cannot continue to make unsuccessful products and expect those product lines to live on forever. With the lukewarm reception of the Pixel 5 and the Pixelbook Go of last year, it would not be a huge surprise if we saw these products disappear in a few years. We have already seen these devices be influenced by this lack of success. Where the original Pixelbook and Pixel phones were designed as high-end hardware solutions designed at a premium price point, the more recent devices target a much more middle of the road price category. These moves almost suggest that Google is preparing the public for this to be an eventuality in a few years.
All of that is to say that Google is a company of fluidity. They are never stagnant and always trying to advance to the next thing that will enhance its profitability and line up with its vision for the future of technology. Along the road there will be products that will fall by the wayside and those products will inevitably have fans. If Google were to kill Stadia, for example, there would a small collection of angry users disappointed that the company did not see it through. But in the end, this is not what Google cares about. Google is a company that is focused on driving technology forward and making as much money from said technology in the process. While we all may look at Google as that savvy company that cares only about making cool software, this is not the reality any longer. Google is often compared with Microsoft and looked at as the more relevant company. The reality now is that these days the companies are indistinguishable from one another, as two giants of industry that are first and foremost out for the advancement of their shareholders over the technology that they produce.