24 July 2012

Will Google Docs' submergence into Google Drive pose a branding problem for Google?

Google Docs users who have not yet opened up Google Drive accounts have been greeted by an ominous sounding message every time they login to their Google Docs account for some time now: "Google Docs will soon be upgraded to Google Drive. Google Drive will be the new home for your files."  A message like that brooks no space for disagreement -- your docs WILL have a new home, whether you like it or not.  There was perhaps no way Google could introduce Google Drive without annoying someone, but it's not hard to understand Google's reasoning here.  Drive, as a universal cloud storage platform, is a place to store everything from documents to media to software.  Google Docs documents are a part of many people's digital lives; it wouldn't make sense for Google Drive to not provide users a convenient way to access their Google docs.  Since it was a given that the two services would be integrated in some way, the next logical step was to simply fold Docs into the more universal storage service, Drive.  Why would you stop at just letting people store documents in Drive when you could allow them to conveniently create and edit them inside the service too? Granted, Google could have allowed Google Docs to coexist as a partner to Google Drive -- that's what change-averse users undoubtedly would have preferred -- but Google's been all about reducing supposed "dead weight" lately.  I'm not surprised that Google is picking the option of combining an old service with a similar new service as opposed to letting Docs linger on while Drive attracts a larger user base.

In truth, I don't think the transition to Google Drive is going to be all that difficult for most existing Google Docs users. You can, after all, simply refrain from storing anything other than Google Docs documents on your Google Drive and continue on as usual -- the experience of working with documents online hasn't really changed.  If you want to take advantage of the new desktop app, syncing, and extra storage possibilities, those options are now open to you.  Theoretically, it might seem like there will only be winners and mildly annoyed neutrals here.  Existing users aren't losing anything because of the switchover while Google has the opportunity to attract many more users who just want a place to store their digital stuff.  Who loses?  

If there is any danger in this move for Google, I think it's going to be related to the branding of Google Drive vs Google Docs.  Google Docs is a perfectly named Web service.  I could mention it to people and say a few words about it and they would quickly understand what it's used for.  Of course Google Docs is for collaborative online document creation and editing!  Google Drive doesn't sound like that kind of service at all, though...it sounds like a place for storage.  If someone told me he wanted to work on a document with me via something I hadn't heard of called Google Drive, my first thought would probably be that we would be exchanging Word files and taking turns editing and reuploading them (something we could do about as easily, if not more so, over email).  It just doesn't bring to mind the thought of editing documents online collaboratively -- it sounds passive versus active.  How existing Docs users perceive their new Google Drive accounts may well change over time, too, especially if they start using their drives to store more than documents.  Will you combine documents for work or school with music or video files on the same Google Drive or will you use different Google Drive accounts for different use cases in the same way that people often have different Gmail addresses for work and personal correspondence?  Alternatively, will you start using a Google Docs competitor, like Zoho, to manage online documents and store other files on Google Drive?  
Undoubtedly Google Drive has the potential to appeal to a considerably larger pool of users than Google Docs ever could.  After all, everyone has SOMETHING digital they want to store, but not everyone is interested in storing, editing, and sharing documents online.  However, it wouldn't surprise me if Google Drive's success in the cloud storage wars comes at a cost in the online documents space.  Services that seem more "docs-oriented" can now brand themselves as being "serious" alternatives to lighthearted, consumer-oriented Google Drive.  If people perceive Google Drive as being more like a digital playground and Zoho or another competitor as being more like a digital office, I suspect a lot more lab reports and sales figures will be stored outside the Google ecosystem.  This trend will only be accelerated if Google is perceived as having stopped trying to improve its Docs services -- a real possibility, I think, since I suspect most Google Drive users will not be using the service to create documents and Google will naturally be focused on trying to keep its new core user base happy.

21 February 2012

Will users tire of the walled garden?

If I were starting this blog from scratch right now, I would almost certainly have to include Facebook on my list of Internet giants. In terms of sheer size as well as significance, Facebook deserves a place right up there with Google and Microsoft, and it should probably be listed ahead of AOL and Yahoo. However, Facebook doesn't really fit the "giant" paradigm that I created back in 2007. I envisioned an Internet where big companies were actively competing with each other, user by user, by creating new, innovative, and useful services. I took it for granted that users would pick and choose what services they liked regardless of what company offered them: a user might, for instance, use Google for searching, Hotmail for email, and Flickr for photos. Facebook is different in that it has a core product (social networking) that it builds all of its other services around. If you're not interested in social networking on Facebook, you are essentially outside Facebook's sphere.

Of course, most of us are inside that sphere nowadays. I often hear Facebook compared to the portals of old because of the way it seeks to draw (and keep) users in rather than send them out into the outside Internet. Certainly, it does do that -- you don't really need to leave the environs of Facebook.com if all you want to do is talk to your friends, share some photos, or even enter a sweepstakes. However, Facebook is also seeking to bring the outside Internet in in a way the portals didn't succeed in doing. Increasingly, users login to other sites with their Facebook IDs, comment on blogs that run Facebook Comments, and, when they find something online they think is cool, Like Web content on Facebook. Unlike many of the older portals, Facebook seems to recognize the dynamism of the Internet. Rather than try to keep users confined in the walled garden of Facebook.com, FB is trying to expand that garden to encompass much of the Web. Leaving Facebook.com doesn't mean you actually leave Facebook.

The question is will users actually play along with Facebook. My personal feeling is that no, they probably won't over time. There will certainly always be a need for social networks, but the people who are spending every waking hour on Facebook today aren't necessarily going to be the same people who are spending every waking hour on Facebook a year or ten years from now. Interests, lifestyles, and values change, and people get tired of the same old thing. If you're a daily Facebook user, then Facebooking your way through the Web is an easy and convenient thing to do. If FB is just another website to you, though, you may wonder why your Facebook ID should be your "passport" to the Web. There are huge downsides to letting one ID control your online world: perhaps the biggest is the fact that if your Facebook account is compromised all your stuff is compromised right along with it. Another big one is the privacy factor: how can you trust one company with so much data? I don't see any reason to believe that people want to do everything online on or through Facebook; the recent struggles of F-commerce show that users still see some value in keeping their online shopping antisocial.

And then there's anonymity, that thing that Facebook doesn't like. I actually think Facebook's much ballyhooed "real names only" policy will be a major part of its future decline. Let my own example serve as a cautionary tale. Some years ago, I started getting back into the BBSing scene. Long before I was on the Internet, I used my modem to connect to dialup bulletin board systems to download files, play games, talk on forums, get information, chat with others, etc. BBSes dimmed in popularity as Internet access became more widespread, but many still exist today and are actually accessible through the Internet. Anyway, I made the decision to simply let my real name be my user name on the new BBSes I was signing up for. I thought to myself, "Why not? I don't need to hide behind a user name...I'll just be me." Totally Facebooky, eh? There was no single moment in my BBSing experience that made me decide, "It's really a bad idea to use my real name online." Nonetheless, after a while I started to long for anonymity. There's a kind of burden to having everything you do online attached to your real identity. Every post, every action, linked for all eternity to you...I didn't like that feeling. If you're seeking fame or planning on making a living using your online identity, then "real names only" is a great policy. For the rest of us, it's a weight we have to carry on our shoulders; given enough time, I think many will be eager to shake it off. In a sense, we're already seeing this happen as it's become more and more common for people to create fake Facebook accounts for various purposes. Facebook can either double down on its anti-anonymity stance and push users away or relax it and become a less useful passport for the Web as a result. Either way, I think there are limits to how much of the Web Facebook can encircle.