Google Cloud offers a model for fixing Google’s product-killing reputation

Google Cloud Platform, no longer perpetually under construction?
Enlarge / Google Cloud Platform, no longer perpetually under construction?

We’ve written about this several times before: Google’s reputation for aggressively killing services is hurting the company’s brand. Any new product launch from Google is no longer met with optimism but instead is inundated with comments about when it will be shut down. It’s a problem entirely of Google’s own making, but it’s yet another barrier that discourages investing (either time, money, or data) in the latest Google thing. The wide skepticism faced by Google Stadia today is a great example.

A Google division with a similar problem is Google Cloud Platform, which asks companies and developers to build a product or service powered by Google’s cloud infrastructure. Like the rest of Google, Cloud Platform has a reputation for instability thanks to quickly deprecating APIs, making any project hosted on Google’s platform require continual updating to keep up with the latest changes. Google Cloud wants to address this though, with a new “Enterprise API” designation.

Enterprise APIs basically get a roadmap that promises stability for certain APIs. Google says, “The burden is on us: Our working principle is that no feature may be removed (or changed in a way that is not backwards compatible) for as long as customers are actively using it. If a deprecation or breaking change is inevitable, then the burden is on us to make the migration as effortless as possible.” If Google does need to change an API, customers will now get a minimum of one year’s notice, along with tools, documentation, and other materials. Google goes on to say “To make sure we follow these tenets, any change we introduce to an API is reviewed by a centralized board of product and engineering leads and follows a rigorous product lifecycle evaluation.”

Despite being one of the world’s biggest Internet companies and basically defining what modern cloud infrastructure looks like, Google just isn’t doing very well in the cloud infrastructure market. Canalys has Google in a distant third with 7 percent market share, behind Microsoft Azure (19 percent) and market leader Amazon Web Services (32 percent). Rumor has it (according to a report from The Information) Google Cloud Platform is actually facing down a 2023 deadline to beat AWS and Microsoft, or it will risk losing funding.

Ex-Googler Steve Yegge laid out the problems with Google Cloud Platform last year in a post titled “Dear Google Cloud: Your Deprecation Policy is Killing You.” Google’s announcement seems to hit most of what that post highlights, like a lack of documentation and support, an endless treadmill of API upgrades, and Google Cloud’s general disregard for backwards compatibility. Yegge argues that successful platforms like Windows, Java, and Android (a group Yegge says is isolated from the larger Google culture) owe much of their success to their commitment to platform stability and never breaking anything. AWS is the market leader partly because it’s considered a lot more stable than Google Cloud Platform.

Google Cloud gets it

Protocol reports that Google VP Kripa Krishnan was actually asked during the announcement if she was familiar with the Killed By Google website and Twitter account, both run by Cody Ogden. The report says Krishnan “couldn’t help but laugh” and said, “It was pretty apparent to us from many sources on the internet that we were not doing well.”

Google Cloud Platform’s awareness of Google’s reputation, its steps to limit disruption to customers, and its communication of which offerings are more stable than others, feels like a model for the rest of the company. Many Google products currently suffer from the fear that they will be shut down, and oftentimes that’s enough for people to seek other alternatives. The primary way to fix this is just mitigation—i.e., stop shutting so many things down, all the time. But a close second is communication—just tell people what your plans for future support are.

Google seems to have no problem offering a public roadmap for the software it ships on hardware devices. Pixel phones and Chromebooks both have public support statements for their software, showing a minimum (that’s a minimum!) date that the devices can count on support. For instance, we know a Pixel 5 will continue to receive updates until at least October 2023. Google can’t do anything to immediately solve its reputation for killing products and services, but communication like this can help relieve some of the hesitation users and companies increasingly feel when investing in a Google product. If you don’t plan on killing a product for a long time, say so! Tell Google users and company partners which products are stable and which ones are fly-by-night experiments.

Of course, for this to work, Google has to actually stick to any public commitments it makes so people can trust it will follow through on its promises. Recently, the company did not do this. It promised three years of support for Android Things, the IoT version of Android. It didn’t meet that commitment. Instead, Google ended OS updates after only one year. If Google really wants to fix its reputation for instability, it’s going to need a many-year journey.

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