Google’s Tough Week

Google is having a bit of a (self-inflicted) rough week, aren’t they? They’ve rolled out three big projects: redesigns of Gmail and Google Reader, and a new Gmail app for iOS. Two of the three have justifiably come under fire from users.

I didn’t even get a chance to download the Gmail app for iOS. The folks at TechCrunch did, and they found “the app is a mess. It’s unusable. It doesn’t even launch properly, displaying an error message upon startup.” Yikes. It was so bad that Google yanked the app from the store. Hopefully by the time you’re reading this a new version will have been deployed.

Google’s blog post on the new app was appended with this update:

Update: 11/2/11: Earlier today we launched a new Gmail app for iOS. Unfortunately, it contained a bug which broke notifications and caused users to see an error message when first opening the app. We’ve removed the app while we correct the problem, and we’re working to bring you a new version soon. Everyone who’s already installed the app can continue to use it.

Moving on, Google Reader got a facelift earlier this week. I haven’t done a scientific study, but the buzz I’m hearing is almost universally negative. Lots of press is being given to this post by one of Google Reader’s former Project Managers Brian Shih. I don’t agree with everything he says and clearly he’s not an unbiased observer (he’s no longer at Google) but he makes some great points. The new design (in my opinion) does suffer from a drastic lack of color, although I’m already getting used to looking at various shades of gray to keep my place. But Shih’s most important criticism is that you have to +1 an article to share it (to Google+).

So what? Well, context is lost. When you +1 an article to share it with a Circle of close friends, you can add your thoughts like “This person is out of his mind. I totally disagree with his views.” But later on down the road, if someone is perusing the list of things you’ve +1ed on your Google Profile, they’ll lose that context and just see that you +1ed the post in question, which implies that you improve of what the person wrote. Maybe you’ve stumbled on an essay detailing the positive effects of pedophilia, and you want to share it and your sense of outrage with some friends. Is this a web page you want in your “+1” list? Probably not. This is kind of a big deal. I’d really like to share posts without having to then go into my Google Profile, click on my +1’s list, and delete that entry.

And of course, all other sharing options have been removed. You can still “Send to” various services and perhaps share from one of them, and Google lets you add custom Send To destinations, but these options are a lot less user friendly, not to mention the fact that they mean rebuilding your social networks from scratch.

Last up is Gmail. As far as I can tell, most people think the new look for Gmail is OK. Of course, it’s still optional so most people using it are people who don’t fear change. We’ll see what happens when the update is mandatory. But my experience after a day of using it is that it still feels comfortable while being a bit more refined and more customizable. I really enjoy being able to choose how ‘dense’ the information on the page is (the three settings are Comfortable, Cozy and Compact) and putting avatars (where available) next to each person’s email address really helps when scanning long back and forth email threads consisting of several people. Heck, I even gave the Themes another try, and stuck with one (Beach).

Thoughts? Comments? Is Google getting a bum deal with all the hate aimed at them? Or do you think, as Shih says in his post, that it’s like whoever is running these projects doesn’t actually use the products? I did hear a Googler on G+ say they’d been ‘dog-fooding’ the Gmail changes (in other words, they’d been using the new design internally) before it launched; I didn’t hear that about Reader. And the Gmail changes are the ones most often being praised. Coincidence? Who knows?

Read more of Peter Smith’s TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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