I’m pretty sure Google is breaking up with me
Slowly but surely, the experience I signed up for is going away.
Last week one of my friends sent me a screenshot of her Facebook “On This Day” feed where I was trying to get everyone to leave Facebook for Google+. She had her laugh, and so did I, but I found myself still thinking about it a couple of days later.
Google shutting down its slowly dying social network wasn’t a surprise, and it wasn’t really something that upset me, but remembering the original promise of Google+ left me kind of angry. At its start, Google+ was the continuation of this larger vision the company had for its services, and that entire vision has now completely disappeared.
And I’m probably not going to get over it.
Long before Google+, I got my whole family hooked on Hangouts and Google Reader. Over that year I had just about everyone I knew using both of them, and it was great. When Google Voice came out, my whole family signed up for that as well. This was a Google family, and most of my friends followed suit. The ecosystem I’d created for myself was fantastic. I didn’t need to know anyone’s phone number. I didn’t need to have a bunch of different messaging apps installed. Everything just worked.
The only barrier to entry was a Google account, and everyone not only had one of those but absolutely loved using it right? RIGHT?!
For me, Google+ took this ecosystem I’d created for myself and expanded it to the rest of the world. When I wanted to talk to a friend on G+, I tapped in their name and could immediately reach them via Hangouts. I didn’t need to know anyone’s phone number or address, just their online profile. To me, this was the future. And it was only going to get better as Google started talking about unifying different chat services under the Hangouts banner.
This was supposed to be a single communication layer, completely replacing all of these aging and broken communication mechanisms we’d been using as the internet grew up around us. No hardware boundaries, no need to remember nine different apps to reach all your friends and family, just an internet connection and you’re there with the rest of the world.
Some of this excitement was borne of my own ignorance. I mean, the only barrier to entry was a Google account and everyone not only had one of those but absolutely loved using it, right? Right?! Wrong.
As Google was constructing its web-based walled garden, Microsoft and Apple were making sure there were at least some competing services for people to fall in love with. And a lot of my thought then was very U.S.-centric; the rest of the world didn’t have access to this experience for a variety of reasons. To those people, the Google account was the obnoxious other account they had to sign in to in order to reach some of their friends. And my personal bubble was not as big as I thought it was; there simply weren’t that many people who both saw and wanted Google in their entire web experience.
Unfortunately, by the time Google realized lots of folks would rather have pieces of their experience instead of an all-or-nothing approach, it was too late. Google Reader had already been shut down to encourage people to use G+ as their news feed, Hangouts had already not lived up to its unified messaging promise, and YouTube was filled with videos of people actively raging about being forced to use G+ as a comment moderation system.
For people like me, things have only gotten worse. Hangouts is now an “enterprise” app, in exchange for two different apps (Allo and Duo) which both rely heavily on phone numbers for identity. Google+ is on the way out. Inbox, another app I love, is dying. None of the things I once saw as pillars of the Google experience are going to be here in a year. The unified Web, which I now admit was never really a thing to begin with, will soon be fully eradicated.
Google’s priorities have shifted, and as difficult as it is for me to admit those new priorities are generally better. My Lenovo Smart Display tells me when I need to leave my house to get to a meeting on time; Google Photos automatically pings my parents when I’ve backed up photos of their grandkids, and my Pixel 3 will soon screen calls for me.
Google Assistant is the new unified experience. This layer across all of Google that improves my life by doing things for me. I still want those other things, and I still think Google is the best company to handle the challenges associated with unifying communication across the world, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen anytime soon.