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Is Google's perpetual beta a winning strategy?

Tim O'Reilly uses the wrong argument to defend Google's consistent failure to build winning products beyond advertising.

Tim O'Reilly recently came to Google's rescue (as if it needed him to do so), slapping out at those like ReadWriteWeb that dare to criticize Google for creating a wide array of projects...but leaving 45 percent in the land of perpetual beta, as ComputerWorld recently noted.

O'Reilly chides ReadWriteWeb for disparaging Google's win rate (i.e., one win--albeit a big one--in its company history), which is probably fair, but then makes the mistake of holding up Google's successes in maps and other "markets" that generate little cash and/or cost much cash (YouTube). He needn't have bothered. Google can be a failure in everything else it does provided it keeps feeding its advertising machine. Microsoft? It had two big hits--Windows and Office--which have covered a multitude of sins in other product areas.

I think where O'Reilly really stumbles is in implying that the Google critiques stem from sour grapes. Hardly. In fact, the reason I and others criticize Google derives from a belief that its immense brain power should be churning out more than pretty artwork on its main page. Google has a fantastic opportunity to completely change the face of computing. Its attempts thus far have been middling at best.

True, as O'Reilly notes, Google's Chrome browser and its Android mobile platform represent significant leaps at the future, and may end up significantly altering that future for the better. I agree. But this doesn't mean that Google should get a free pass on roaring into new markets (e.g., comparison shopping with Froogle, e-mail with Gmail, etc.) and then underwhelming in product features and the corporate attention necessary to gain market share.

I believe Google uses its "perpetual beta" strategy as an internal excuse for poor craftsmanship and even poorer execution. Google disagrees, trying to spin its beta story for ComputerWorld as a positive thing and somehow different from traditional software:

We have very high internal metrics our consumer products have to meet before coming out of beta. Our teams continue to work to improve these products and provide users with an even better experience. We believe beta has a different meaning when applied to applications on the Web, where people expect continual improvements in a product....Rather than the packaged, stagnant software of decades past, we're moving to a world of regular updates and constant feature refinement where applications live in the cloud.

Um, no. That's what is expected in the offline world, as well. A far better argument is Nicholas Carr's: failure is part of the Google plan. Kick a lot of different tires to see which will hold up and drive more advertising dollars.

That, at least, is a cogent plan, and one that justifies Google's overwhelming number of product "failures." But O'Reilly and Google don't argue this defense. Instead they argue that the failures are really successes in the traditional sense of gaining market share and dollars associated with market share, leaving many of us to scratch our heads in wonder.

Regardless, the real story in this as with Microsoft is that regardless of its successes or failures with products, any hint of Google entering a market is a death knell for start-ups looking to raise money in that area, when it really shouldn't be. Their respective track records in their core businesses is awesome to behold. Their respective track records in most everything else? Nothing to fret about.