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SUBSCRIBE NOW!
Vol. 20 No. 9 — November 2012
FEATURE
When Google Taketh Away
by Terry Ballard


The topic of discontinued Google services has risen to the surface recently with the announcement that iGoogle will be discontinued in 2013. I have been asked to deliver the eulogy for it and a number of previous services. First I must add disclaimers. In 2011, I was hosted at the Googleplex while gathering material for my book Google This!: Putting Google and Other Social Media Sites to Work for Your Library [978-1843346777]. For a day I was given access to product developers and came away with material that greatly enhanced my book. It also reinforced the fact that I am a big fan of their work. Secondly, I own six shares of Google stock.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the things that will never make it to Google’s Monument Park. This is by no means a comprehensive list. I tend to leave out products substantially replaced by other Google products.

Google Obituaries

Aardvark (b. February 2010, d. September 2011). Created by a startup company called Mechanical Zoo founded by ex-Google employees, Aardvark was released to the public in 2009 and purchased by Google 2 years later. The product built networks of people who needed information with people who were experts. Users could mine that expertise from members of their extended community. Creating an online community that hits critical mass is the hardest thing in the world, and seemingly sparks did not fly here.

Google Answers (b. 2002, d. November 2006). The concept was first tried in August 2001 as Google Questions and Answers, but that lasted less time than a Hollywood marriage — reportedly just 1 day. Users would put out a question and experts would sell them well-researched answers for a price of anywhere from $2 to $200. Google would then get a commission from both the buyers and sellers. While Google would not accept new questions after 2006, it kept the archive of past questions and answers going in perpetuity, so Google Answers joined the “undead.”

Google Buzz (b. February 2009, d. December 2011). In what appeared to be a social media offensive, Buzz came out around the same time as Aardvark. This product integrated with the Gmail service, letting users share all manner of images and videos, similar to services such as Pinterest, then allowed users to generate conversations about them. Unlike many such products, Buzz was homegrown by Google.

Catalogs (b. December 2001, d. January 2009). Search engine for more than 6,000 print catalogs, acquired through optical character recognition. Cause of death — lack of popularity.

Google Code Search (b. October 2006, d. January 2012). It was a specialized search engine to find various codes on the internet, including Ada, AppleScript, Fortran, and dozens of other languages. Although officially shut down in January 2012, it is still available as of this writing, which makes it another case of the undead.

Google Dictionary (d. August 2011). This was a product that grew out of Google Translate (also now deprecated). After several tries, Google settled on the Oxford American College Dictionary as the source for definitions. This included a popular feature of “starred words.” Since the shutdown was done without much warning, there was considerable backlash from users of starred words. Starred words appeared again for a few weeks, presumably to give users a chance to save their data. Then these words went away. Forever.

Google Fast Flip (b. September 2009, d. September 2011). This allowed users to create their own visual newsfeeds with a navigation that emulated the process of flipping through a magazine. Catharine P. Taylor of CBS Moneywatch wrote at the time of Fast Clip’s release: was a simple matter of scrolling a list of countries by Flag, alphabetically arranged of course. This direct link led, by a simple step, to a ‘country specific’ search which is no longer possible in an easy accessible way Much has been said about Google Fast Flip this week both here, and elsewhere. But for all the talk of user interfaces and revenue share deals with publishers — which will be what make this work — what made Google Fast Flip intriguing when I played with it is that it returned some serendipity to both the Internet experience and the reading experience.” Other critics found fault with its navigation, claiming that the service serves the needs of publishers more than users, and that the amount of content is too limited.

One public librarian told me that there used to be a Google Country Specific Search. Loretta Kelleher of the East Meadow Public Library wrote: “In recent memory there was a LANGUAGE link from the Google Home Page which has been deleted. To attempt such a search, now, is awkward and time consuming. One must first find a list of country codes and reconstruct the Google ‘URL’ for Ireland, or India, Israel, Italy, and so on. Ease of access has been permanently deleted. Consequently, to advise a Patron now on how to do a Country specific search is cumbersome indeed.”

Google Desktop (b. December 2004, d. September 2011). Desktop was an application designed to search a term anywhere on a computer — including email, files, and the internet. When the program was installed, it created an inventory of all files in the computer and updated periodically. This is similar in function to file search in Windows. The big difference is that the Google product brought you results in seconds while the animated puppy in Windows could wag its tail for 10 minutes or more without any results. Google discontinued it in 2011 because it claimed that more users have gone to the cloud, so the desktop is redundant. I miss it.

Google Health (b. May 2008, d. January 2012). This gave users an electronic home for all of their health information, including tests and prescriptions. This service seemed particularly promising because Google had attracted a number of important partners in the health insurance and pharmacy industries. As a patient, I would favor such an enterprise because I’ve spent dozens of hours in doctor’s waiting rooms, filling out the same information for each doctor (I’m deadly allergic to typhoid shots). One doctor told me that the concept is a part of Obamacare, which mandates that health records migrate to electronic formats.

Google Image Labeler (b. November, 2006, d. September 2011). This was a fast-paced game designed to generate tags for Google’s image library. If you were logged into your Google account, you could create an alias and be paired with another user to look at a series of pictures and find mutually descriptive words. You were given a score each time both parties added a word that matched. There was a leader board which gave away the fact that some people played this all day, every day. Sadly for them, this did not survive the great products purge of September 2011.

Jaiku (d. January 2012). Created in February 2006 by Helsinki-based Jaiku Ltd. Purchased by Google a year later, it never really hit a critical mass the way that the similar Twitter did, so by 2009 Google had started to back away from the service, converting it to open source run by Google volunteers. Late in 2011, Google finally pulled the plug on Jaiku.

Google PowerMeter (b. October 2009, d. September 2011). As a free service that allowed you to monitor the power usage in your home electronically, I would have used this had I known of its existence.

Google Sets (b. 2002, d. 2011). Something of a curiosity designed to demonstrate the mechanism of Google’s search logic. Type in “broccoli zucchini and lettuce” and it would continue with cabbage, carrots and squash. It had enough of a following that online petitions appeared to bring it back, but to no avail.

Google Squared (b. May 2009, d. September 2011). The product contained features of Google Search but took it a step further and created a spreadsheet output for the data. It premiered in Google Labs but never went much past the status as a curiosity.

Google Video (b. January 2005, d. August 2012). Google Video had an impressive record of survival given that Google bought YouTube in October 2006. Google Video had an image of being more seriously purposeful than YouTube. However, Google watchers could see the writing on the wall for years before Google Video’s content was subsumed by YouTube.

Google Wave (b. May 2010, d. April 2012). Even though it technically lasted nearly 2 years, Google surprisingly shut down development of this product in August 2010 due to lack of interest. This was a Java-based collaborative tool with elements of wiki, instant messaging, and email, with “waves” that were hosted XML documents, allowing concurrent modifications. The time lag between development shutdown and total elimination gave Google time to add Wave features to Google Documents.

And Then There Was iGoogle

During our visit to the Googleplex, I relayed a query about “Google Uncle Sam” to a product developer who had been one of Google’s first 100 employees. He told me that in all cases, products go away due to lack of use. That brings me to the main event — “The Strange Case of iGoogle.”

iGoogle was born in May 2005. It was a homepage, tied to a user account, that let the user log in from anywhere and have access to the data that he or she considered important. It is a highly personalized webpage with a viewership of one. In the beginning, a banner appeared across the top of the screen. You could choose the banner from a wide range of topics developed by Google or by users conversant with XML coding. Typical things found on an iGoogle screen were daily local weather, RSS feeds, a bookmark file, and a cartoon set of Google eyeglasses that were always staring at the location of the cursor.

Sometime around 2009, Google added a tool that allowed users to create themes of their own without needing to know code. Since this was never indicated, beginning users found by trial and error that the optimum file size for a theme was 1400x185 pixels. iGoogle by this time had many millions of users, so this unleashed a flood of creativity. Before the curtain came down, I had produced more than 300 themes. Once a theme was submitted, it went to Google for its sign-off, and then it was added to a publicly searchable directory.

I noticed early on that Google seemed to sign off on nearly everything, so the directory was often clogged with amateurish work. Several of my early productions should have been rejected but weren’t. At first I did this just for a lark, making my themes available to friends and family members. You wouldn’t know how many subscribers you had until there were more than 100. One day, I was very surprised to see that several of my themes based on photographs of Ireland were showing subscriber counts. In 2010, I found an autumn theme I had created had received more than 70,000 subscriptions. That caused me to show up in the top 200 of the “Top iGoogle developers” page. Sadly, with what followed, the page looks like a list of the most popular passengers on the Titanic.

The bigger story in iGoogle was the development of gadgets. There were thousands of developers, inventing their hearts out to create widgets and gadgets for iGoogle users. There was no simple interface for this — you had to know how to work with XML code. With extensive trial and error (emphasis on error), I learned how to make simple search gadgets for my library’s online catalog and other homegrown products. One university developed dozens of iGoogle gadgets to cover every aspect of its electronic offerings.

When Google announced that iGoogle was going away Nov. 1, 2013, there was a substantial outcry. Like many jilted users, I signed a petition begging Google to reconsider, but it doesn’t look like Google will. In particular, I urged Google to add a mandatory ad bar and base its content on the other iGoogle page content — that way it could mine a revenue stream based on the interests of millions of users. No such luck.

Without a Google U-turn, my greatest hope is that some genius will create a startup to replace iGoogle and host the thousands of gadgets invented for it. In 1 year, these will be orphans unless somebody steps up to give them a new home. A former colleague told me that I have to try NetVibes, which can be used to make a very attractive page of feeds, but I don’t see any evidence that it does anything more than accumulate content already out there.

And the Show Goes On … Or Does It?

There was also Joga Bonito (soccer community site), Google Lively (3D animated chat program), Related Links (brought new data links to any website), Google Sidewiki (browser sidebar), U.S. Government Search (pretty much what it sounds like). All are gone. I also miss Google Labs, which was a way to check out Google products that weren’t quite ready for prime time.

In spite of this, I guess we need to focus on what Google has given us and be excited about new offerings about to be released. A Google employee dropped me a hint that the Google glasses that mix vision and data about places is coming into its own and will rock our world.

Before sending you out into the world of uncertain data and vanishing products, I leave you with a favorite quote from Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter: “Keep an eye to the future, an ear to the past, and, after thinking it over, notice nothing much lasts.”

Amen.


Terry Ballard is a retired librarian. He was most recently assistant director of technical services for library systems at the Mendik Library of the New York Law School. Leisure studies manager [http://www.terryballard.org], he is author of the book Google This!: Putting Google and Other Social Media Sites to Work for Your Library [http://googlethisforlibraries.com].

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