Google Closes Google Labs

CEO Larry Page says the company is putting "more wood behind fewer arrows."

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

July 21, 2011

4 Min Read

Top 15 Google Apps For Business

Top 15 Google Apps For Business

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Google CEO Larry Page has been cleaning house at the company he co-founded. During his company's recent earnings conference call and in a transcription of his remarks on that call posted to Google+, Page described his campaign for greater corporate focus as putting "more wood behind fewer arrows."

Or if you prefer a pasta metaphor, Google is throwing less spaghetti against the wall in the hope that some of it will stick. Until recently, that would've been a fair way to describe Google's product strategy, outside of its core search advertising business: The company's engineers deployed interesting and often unexpected software and services, often with relatively little direction from above, and hoped that people would use it.

But as the company has marshaled its resources behind broad strategic initiatives like search and ads, Android, Chrome, and YouTube, Google+, Local, and Commerce, it has become less patient with projects that lack an obvious connection to its core interests.

After taking over for Eric Schmidt, now the company's executive chairman, Page discontinued Google Health and Google PowerMeter. On Wednesday, there was a new casualty, Google Labs.

Bill Coughran, SVP for research and systems infrastructure, broke the news in a blog post titled to echo Page's wood-and-arrow evocation of corporate focus.

"While we've learned a huge amount by launching very early prototypes in Labs, we believe that greater focus is crucial if we're to make the most of the extraordinary opportunities ahead," Coughran explained.

Coughran said that in many cases this will mean ending Labs experiments; in other cases this will mean integrating experiments with more established products. The trouble is that Google hasn't specified which experiments will be discontinued and which will survive outside of the Labs environment, apart from those that are Android apps, which will live on in the Android Market.

Coughran said that Google will provide more specifics at a later date via the Labs site.

In apparent awareness of the inadequacy of its ill-defined product purge, Google has amended Coughran's post to note that in-product experimentation channels, such as Gmail Labs and Maps Labs, will remain unchanged. Presumably Search Experiments, Calendar Labs, and YouTube TestTube, due to their product focus, will also survive in some form. And possibly Google Code Labs too, the home of a variety of experimental APIs.

So which Labs experiments are candidates for extinction? Google Body, Google Scribe, or maybe Google Image Swirl? What about Aardvark,, the question-answering service acquired by Google in February last year and presently languishing in Labs, or Swiffy, Google's recently introduced Flash-to-HTML5 conversion tool? We will have to wait for Google to declare its intentions.

Coughran has made it clear that Google isn't forsaking rapid innovation. But future innovation from the company is likely to be narrower in scope than it was in the past, back before it became apparent that some of the world's information would defy Google's efforts to organize it and make it universally accessible.

"It is easy to focus on things we do that are speculative (e.g., driverless cars) but we spend the vast majority of our resources on the core products," Page said to reassure investors. "We may have a few small speculative projects happening at any given time, but we're very careful stewards of shareholder money--we're not betting the farm on this stuff."

Page declared that everyone at Google wants to create services that people around the world use twice a day, "just like a toothbrush."

Apple CEO Steve Jobs would never employ such a prosaic comparison. But perhaps Page, as his CEO hat becomes more comfortable, will come to recognize the value of more florid and ambitious descriptions of his company as a way to compensate for reining in the experimentation that made Google really interesting.

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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