Is Google's Product Strategy Dumb, Brave or Both?

Public beta testing means accepting some misunderstandings along the way.

offthemedia-1There’s no question we live in one of the harshest media environments in history. Not that it’s necessarily always critical but rather, if you’re someone doing something in the public eye, you face a million media outlets all shouting to be louder than the others, publishing in real time, with little editing, little fact checking, and complete subjectivity.

In other words, it’s the mob.

Which is why for the last year I have been in continual awe of Google’s decisions to more or less develop it’s two biggest, most ambitious products in public. First, Google Glass, which has been dropped on the world in a kind of public beta. Some people can buy them, Google gave away many for free, and yet the device is nowhere near completed and there are many (as they admit) problems and hurdles left to clear. And then you have their driverless cars—a truly futuristic concept—that Google has been speaking about for sometime and just recently started giving test rides to journalists.

Both these projects are outside Google’s core strengths as a search company, and yet instead of perfecting them in secret in the lab, as Apple might, Google is doing it right here in front of us. And this is without even mentioning their other ambitious—and very public—initiatives like Google Fiber, Project Loon, and their latest, a $1 billion dollar investment in internet satellites to unwired areas of the world.

As I said, this is either brave and bold, or totally insane or worse.

For years, political strategists and historians have debated the “CNN Effect.” How can one lead in a world driven by a 24/7 news cycle? Is there time for sufficient deliberation and reflection? Is there room for mistakes and the behind the scenes deals it takes to get things done?

I would ask whether it’s possible to develop truly great products and maintain a stellar reputation in today’s media environment.

In 2004 when Google launched Gmail, it was to mostly adoring coverage by blogs. The product stayed in Beta for over five years, but despite this and the bugs and tweaks that were made, the media environment was still such that Google managed to survive it. And Gmail, because it was so amazing a product, thrived. But today?

Even right here on Betabeat, we’ve been quite critical of Glass on occasion. We took Google to task for reports of eye pain with new users. According to Google, this is something they are a) working on, and b) inherently part of the adjustment period of a new product. But part of the reason they were caught off guard by our reports is that this product has just been dropped on the world—there is no roll out strategy, and no planned responses for anticipated issues. It’s not like we, or anyone for that matter, have had months (or even days) of private time to review and discuss the product internally before publication.

Going back to Google’s driverless cars, it seems inevitable to me that there is going to be a crash, major accident or at the very least, an unexpected incident of some kind. For Google, this won’t happen in private. Blogs will know about it—probably almost immediately—and they will be merciless about it.

This can hurt Google in a way that may be less than obvious. Legislators are scrambling to write laws into effect to deal with some of the regulatory issues with driverless cars (how do you write a traffic ticket for a driverless car?), which is difficult when there is no there’s no precedent for this kind of circumstance. And with Google Glass, there’s no law yet that regulates the facial recognition software available on the platform, which should be considered private property in the same vein as our fingerprints are. Those panicked or premature blogger reactions hurt not only Google directly as a company, but it also works against this kind of innovation faster than legislators can work for it, which is a severe risk on Google’s part. They may in fact be doing themselves and innovation a disservice.

What problems happened with the iPod behind the scenes? Or the iPhone? What potentially embarrassing flaws or bugs were found while safely ensconced in Apple’s secret lair? I can’t tell you. Because nobody knows! That’s the whole point.

Part of me thinks this is all very admirable. It says: to hell with the chatter, we’re going to straight to the people with our products and we think they’re smart enough to appreciate what we’re doing here. It’s the real life version of Austin Kleon’s “Show Your Work” philosophy…except the work in this case isn’t a blog or a book, it’s potentially billion dollar businesses.

It’s also a luxury that comes from being one of the world’s most valuable companies and have something like 98% of your revenue come from a single product (search advertising).

But then look at some of these headlines:

Woman Robbed, Assaulted For Wearing Google Glass In A Bar

Google Driverless Car Causes Five-Car Crash

Is Google Making The Digital Divide Worse?

Full Frontal Bummer: Google Bans Porn For Google Glass

Google Glass User gets kicked out of a cafe, starts an online war with the owner

This is blog speculation, drama, and bullshit at it’s worst. And a public company whose share price is driven precisely by such headlines is willingly subjecting itself to it.

So the other part of me thinks, “What the hell are you thinking, Google?”

Especially after a few public failures over the years with Google Health, Google Wave, Google Plus and others. Putting out a product to brutal feedback and then having to take it? That’s tough for anyone, no matter how dominant.

Having spoken to Google’s PR department on occasion, I can tell you, this is not exactly something they were prepared for. At the end of the day, nobody likes to take a beating in the press. No PR department likes to sit there and let lies and misinformation spread. But that’s what this strategy requires. It is a bet on the long view. It’s understanding that you have to lead public opinion, teach people over time how to think and use your product. And that means accepting some misunderstandings along the way.

The question is whether Google can take it. Whether it’s leaders are strong enough to take it. And frankly, whether the public and the media who represents them is worthy of the faith Google is putting in us.

Ryan Holiday is the editor at large of Betabeat and the author of the recent book The Obstacle is the Way.

Is Google's Product Strategy Dumb, Brave or Both?