There are a lot of companies that pay lip service to out-of-the-box thinking but Google is the best example of a company that has made a religion out of this concept. What else can explain Google’s ability to take seemingly mundane and well established products like the web based email, document management software etc. and turn them into groundbreaking ones?
When Google first came out with its web-based email, a lot of critics hailed it as a me-too product which wouldn’t be able to make a dent in the established market share of Yahoo and Hotmail. However, with the help of its innovative interface and on the back of the complacency shown by Yahoo and Hotmail who hadn’t updated their products in ages, Gmail quickly gained ground, first amongst the technically savvy and then amongst regular users. You might see a lot of data out there that might tell you that Yahoo and Hotmail are still the leading email providers, but I am loathe to believe it. Just anecdotically, looking at the email ids in my contact list, I find almost everyone has started using Gmail on a more regular basis and they maintain other accounts just because they’ve had them for a long time; and not too many people on my contact list can qualify as being technically savvy.
Recently Google unveiled its web based document management product and yet again, both Yahoo and Microsoft were caught with their pants down. With features like easy collaboration, chat facility amongst collaborators and a clean and functional interface, Google Documents is the product to beat. It has some great features to create basic text documents and spreadsheets and it can serve the needs of a huge majority of users without the bloated MS Office that costs hundreds of dollars.
The most astonishing aspect in the Google story is that they are becoming increasingly good at satisfying the unsaid needs of their users; the kind of needs and requirements that an average user cannot even begin to articulate in focus groups and such. This ability to seemingly delight customers is the holy grail that any company strives to achieve and Google seems to have done that. Usually, when Microsoft releases new features in its products, it tends to bloat the software and makes it increasingly difficult for users to effectively complete the 80% of tasks that they need to do on a more regular basis. With Google, the new features add to the value of the product. A few examples would include integration of Google Talk in email, ability to update a conversation on-the-fly while you are in middle of replying to it and ability to chat between collaborators in Google Docs.
Google has changed the game in consumer software and it has shown that the first-mover advantage can be negated by a smart, motivated company, no matter how deeply entrenched its competitors are. Using Microsoft and Yahoo’s products often leads to frustration and frequent anguished exclamations of “What were they thinking?”, while it is mostly a delight to use Google’s products. The recent updates to Hotmail and Yahoo mail only serve to illustrate how big the gap is between Google’s and its competitor’s products. While Hotmail and Yahoo are just content to replicate MS Outlook’s interface in a web-based product, it is Google that is doing true out of the box thinking and redefining how we interact with computers. And for this, we love Google.