Google on Privacy, Coming out of Beta, and (Possibly) Rethinking Free Google Apps

July 8, 2009 at 8:16 am | Posted in Google | Leave a comment

A bunch of quick news hits from Google:

Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt was interviewed on NPR yesterday where he was asked about privacy.

Mr. Schmidt said:

our company makes a commitment to people to respect people’s privacy and their personal information because it’s central to the trust that we have with end users … I don’t think anyone wants everything revealed. That’s why we have doors and shades and so forth.

But Google didn’t seem to care too much about privacy last year when it latched onto a common legal chiche to claim full license (just to promote its services) to anything people submit or even display on Google’s sites. Or when it added an “incognito mode” to Chrome to protect your privacy, but also added a unique id buried in each browser as described in Google’s privacy notice for Chrome.

And Google’s belief in security-through-obscurity hampers its principled standpoint on privacy.  When people granted access to a shared doc in Google Apps can find older versions of the doc’s attachments just by knowing the URL, that’s not protecting privacy. Presciently, a commenter on the TechCrunch blog said “Doesn’t beta imply ‘This thing is buggy. Use it at your own risk?”  That leads to the next bit of news …

Google finally took the “beta” tag off some of their most popular webware, such as Gmail, according to the Google OS blog.

As the commenter I mention above demonstrates, many (most?) people assume beta = buggy.  Or, from the vendor’s point of view, the right to dismiss bugs by saying “well, it’s beta!”  As a former commercial software developer, I can attest that my publisher considered beta to be more about the number of bugs in the system, not features.  The GA version of software was about the same as the beta, but it reliably worked. 

In the Gmail blog, Keith Coleman, Gmail’s Product Director, performs the artful dodge.  He asks the correct question “why Google keeps its products in beta for so long”.  He then evades answering it with a bunch of “some say”, “some people thought”, “others said that” statements, then jumps to “The end result (many visible and invisible changes later) is that today, beta is a thing of the past. Not just for Gmail, but for all of Google Apps — Gmail, Calendar, Docs, and Talk.”  Thanks, Keith, for telling me how people not in charge of Gmail would answer the question, but “some say” your answer is the one we’re looking for. 

Mr. Coleman points to a set of great features they’ve added, as if to say “we must have awfully high standards if all these features are needed to get past beta”.  But a product generally comes out of beta when it has the basic administrative features needed to make it usable and a high level of reliability. 

I think Mr. Coleman’s real answer that others said for him is that “over the last five years, a beta culture has grown around web apps, such that the very meaning of ‘beta’ is debatable.”  If the term beta is now useless, that seems to be an argument not to use it rather than to throw it on everything for years.  Just standing behind your product is better than trying to redefine a term to make it meaningless.

Free version of Google Apps gets buried, then emerges

The Google OS blog jokes (?) that “the free edition, … is still available, despite Google’s efforts to make it more difficult to find”.  After TechCrunch reported on Google Apps Standard Edition (GASE) being buried, it partially resurfaced.  There’s now a link to GASE, but without the key word “free” or a comparison of features.  So it’s there, but a bit obscured. This fuels speculation that there’s a split inside Google regarding whether the free version of Google Apps should be pushed, hidden, or hobbled.  I suspect wiser minds will prevail and the free version will emerge into the full daylight again. 

Google launches an operating system

I’m saving the best for last here.  This is the most interesting of the recent spurt of news hits from Google.  As many suspected (and Google openly acknowledged) when the Chrome browser was released, their intent was to create a platform for web applications to run on more than a place to browse web pages. 

Now Google has announced the Google Chrome Operating System, targeted at lightweight devices like netbooks.  Indeed, targeting heftier PCs would ruin the point of the venture, which is to say you don’t need local storage and processing when the cloud is there to serve you. 

The OS won’t be ready until 2010 (does that mean beta in 2010, which means GA in 2017?).  I’m interested to see it.  The lesson Microsoft has learned about operating systems on small devices is that you can’t start with a full-scale OS and start trimming – you have to start fresh and build the OS for light weight from the ground up.  There’s a lot of room for improvement in lightweight OS and Google is in a good position to rethink the problem with web apps in mind.  But please – don’t make it advertising funded!  Sidebars and popups with ads on some web sites I can live with, but not on my desktop.  And the issues behind the news items above – beta (buggy) software, privacy, pricing model consistency – become even more important with an operating system.  Google will have to form a companywide consensus to these 3 issues before plowing into the OS biz.

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