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.