Google has announced that it is "winding down" Labs, its system of introducing new features as experimental prototypes. While I don't imagine that means the end of innovation from Google, it does mark an unfortunate change in the way we get to experience those innovations.
Picture via Muppet Wiki
In a post on its official blog, Google explained that its decision to stop using Labs as a testing ground was so that it could focus on larger changes (an obvious if unmentioned example being the recent rollout of Google+):
We’ve decided to wind down Google Labs. 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.
The simpler interpretation of this: Google is having to marshal its resources to face increasing competitive pressures. The most obvious of these is Facebook, which despite its various privacy scandals remains the standout candidate for taking over from Google as the site most people begin and end their browsing experience with. It also represents the most visible competitor to Google for advertising dominance. (In the US, Bing also represents a threat in that area, but the anaemic subset of features Bing users get in Australia means that's less of an issue locally.)
The change doesn't mean that all Labs options are going to disappear overnight. Right now, labs settings are still available in Gmail, Maps, Chrome and other key Google products. But this announcement does mean that over time, the options offered there will either get rolled into the parent Google product or disappear. (Annoyingly, they might well just stop working without anything resembling an official statement.)
Labs has always been clearly presented as a set of options that could evaporate or change at any time, so it shouldn't come as a shock that Google has decided to stop using that approach. What it ultimately reflects — and what makes me a little sad — is that Google has totally shed its original image as an experimental workplace where creativity determined what might happen. Now it's a completely corporate approach: counting the dollars, measuring the ROI, and encouraging a group attitude and big projects rather than individual innovation.
In a way, it's surprising that this change took so long; Google hasn't been a small company since listing in 2004 (and that's being generous). And we already have a fair idea how Google will roll out its products in the future: by trying to keep a lid on major developments and then suddenly announcing something big, just like everybody else does. That won't always work: there will be leaks, just as there are when Apple or Microsoft or Sony try the same thing.
But we are going to lose some of that sense of being in early, of feeling like we're in on the process, not just getting something delivered when a large company decides it will make the most sense for profit. That process didn't always work perfectly, but it did give Google a clear point of distinction from its rivals that is now going to be lost.
That's my initial reaction to the Google Labs announcement. What's yours?
More wood behind fewer arrows [Official Google Blog]