Google badly needs some platform thinking

Another day, another Google product launch, though this one does more than just lay the groundwork for epic battles to come (most recent example: Google Spreadsheets).

Google Browser Sync is a Firefox extension that solves an immediate problem that no one to date has adequately solved: It automatically synchronizes browser settings across computers. I’ve been using Foxmarks for a while now to keep my bookmarks synchronized across the various computers I use and have found it incredibly useful. But bookmarks are just a small sliver of the Web 2.0 client problem, and I’ve recently found myself wishing Foxmarks could synchronize saved passwords too, the next maddening bit of client metadata that never seems to be in the right place. Well, I now have my solution, and after using it for a few hours, it seems to work pretty well. My only real complaint is that it only works with one open browser at a time—if you launch a browser on a second computer, it logs you out on the first one. I have multiple computers on my desk with multiple browsers open at any given time, and Foxmarks handled this use case well.

Of course, as with all new Google products, this one exposes as many (or more) new holes in the Google platform as it covers, at least for me. For example, why not synchronize my bookmarks with, well, Google Bookmarks? That way, I could get to my browser bookmarks online, add tags (er, labels), etc., with any changes I make online being reflected back on the client side via the browser synchronization. And why isn’t bookmark functionality available in the Google Toolbar? (Actually, it looks like it is available in the IE version, but not the Firefox version, which makes absolutely no sense to me: Shouldn’t the goal be to abstract away the platform underneath, which implies exposing the exact same feature sets in both versions?) And don’t even get me started on Google Notebook, which otherwise looks promising but is completely unintegrated with Google Bookmarks, not to mention the new thing. While I’m at it, why, oh why, doesn’t Google Notebook utilize the very nice word processing functionality acquired with Writely instead of implementing its own rudimentary text editing support? (Ok, that last one’s further afield, but you get where I’m going here.)

In summary, I now have three ways to bookmark things using the Google platform—the browser (nicely synchronized across computers via the Google cloud), a star (a la Gmail) next to results in my Search History (but not on plain old Google search), and “Note This” on plain old Google search (but not the Search History). Oh, and they all create bookmarks in different places. The end result? Even though I’m primarily a Google customer these days, none of this mess is usable, and I’m still using to bookmark things. That said, I’m not even using as much as I used to because it’s not as well integrated with the browser as it could be, which is presumably why Google is investing in a saner browser environment. (There, we’ve gone full circle now.)

I could go on all day. And, thus far, I’ve only talked about bookmarks. From where I set, this is just an example of a much broader problem for Google: Google has an impressive collection of interesting, but disjoint, features. I’d imagine this is a result of Google’s engineering culture combined with rapid growth. Granted, this approach has served Google pretty well thus far as it pumps new stuff out on a nearly weekly basis while Microsoft struggles to get anything done in less than six years. Of course, Microsoft’s rapidly learning how to be agile, and if there’s one thing Microsoft is good at, it’s assembling disjoint features into platforms. So, heads up, Google: You have a thing or two to learn from Microsoft before that epic battle I referred to earlier begins. They’re certainly learning from you.

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