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Google Labs Winding Down (googleblog.blogspot.com)
283 points by snikolic on July 20, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 73 comments

The scary thing about that announcement are it uses the exact same terminology Sun Microsystems used. 'All the wood behind one arrow' being the most relevant. Since I know some of the ex-Sun, current-Google folks I"m guessing at least a few of them flinched reflexively at that.

That being said, I hope this does not mean they are killing off their research group. If they did I think it would be a colossally poor move on Google's part. While Google is famous for it's 20% time initiative its also infamous for having folks deny it or 'target' it (which is to say you can spend 20% of your time working on anything you want as long as it helps this department's goals) which made it difficult to be a source of innovation.

I believe it is not about killing the research, but more of killing the public aspect of it. They want to be less open about future products/innovations and be more like Apple.

Edit: To make it clear - Not that anything is wrong with it. It's probably better for the company.

I completely agree with it being about killing the public aspect.

I'm wondering how this all /may/ fit into the long term view of patents for all parties mentioned here.

If an idea is born, and they have a good patent on it, there should be less to fear by having the idea out there in a public beta.

Perhaps they are all thinking patents might not work so well long term, or how patents work being tweaked due to public pressure about anti-competition.

(...and of course the dreadful waste of money revolving around patents, and especially enforcement.)

AFAIK MS seems to be doing this too, BTW.

There is no way that they're going to kill off the research group at Google. I suspect that they're just going to be keeping a lot of their research out of the public eye, not letting us play with the toys that they've created.

Looks like some HN users have caught the butt-rage since nothing you said was false except maybe that Google would want to be like Apple.

Edit: Uh oh, looks like it's spreading to me now. Here's something shiny to distract you: OS X Lion, iOS5, MacBook Air, App Store is better than Android.

That might be. Apple now has much more revenue than Google.

Though, just today I was thinking: 'Well, Google with their young nerdy founders might just not care as much about profit.' I hope Google won't sacrifice geeky projects like autonomous cars for better quarterly numbers.

Good thing their autonomous cars project isn't part of Labs and could make them an obscene amount of money if it works out.

I wondered a few days ago about the cars: Wouldn't it make more sense to make that project open source?

The serious money is in the data products, I believe. The Google cars work by localizing themselves in very high quality maps obtained by post-processing data obtained by cars that drove the route already at least twice. The maps are checked and corrected by humans, for example to decide where the center of each lane is, and where to look for traffic lights.

The software alone is of limited value without access to the database. The current database of a subset of California's roads is about 20GB. They'll need to freshen it frequently, but renting access to the database is what I think the business model is in the long term.

From a good-for-mankind perspective, probably. From Google's perspective I really don't think so. If they can perfect that technology they will have a great opportunity to be the only company in the world able to license the ability to automate the transportation of people and goods using existing vehicles and roadways. It would be a gold mine.

Well technically, they could open source and still have patents on it. That way they can be the only supplier of autonomous car software for car manufacturers and still allow people to play with the code.

Where did I say that it was a part of labs?

I was just referring to the parent, that this step might indeed be an attempt to cut costs since the competition makes more profit. And if that is true than they might start cutting elsewhere, too.

Hi Chuck! I saw that horrible slogan, and came here to flinch. We were both at Sun during that time. Remember the TV commercial? Whoosh!

When Sun Microsystems fell apart into SunSoft / Sun Labs / etc, Scooter called an all-hands meeting and told everyone to "stop hugging your tree". After the meeting, I complained to my manager (rxb) that I was never issued a tree. I just wanted my tree, like everybody else had. I promised not to hug it.

I think it makes sense. They are going to cycle back and forth between "let's come up with something crazy and hope some of it is useful" and "let's all work on X". Now they are in the latter stage. They want to build up Google+, and want more power behind that project. Once that's done, Labs will come back under a different guise.

This has nothing to do with the research group. It's about moving away from using www.googlelabs.com as a vehicle for 'soft-launching' experimental projects.

This doesn't come at all as a surprise to me. Google Labs was well known internally for being a graveyard for projects that, ironically, was really hard to launch stuff in. Anything that Google launches anywhere automatically gets a huge amount of traffic, and, because it has the Google brand on it, it's expected to meet a fairly high quality, stability, and scalability bar. In practice, this meant was never really possible to use Labs for throwing something up quickly to see if it stuck. This, combined with the maintenance overhead of keeping the various projects running (which were often grafted onto other larger codebases), makes shutting it down a pretty obvious decision.

Obvious decision or not, Google Labs has been one of my favorite parts of Google for years. For me at least, this deprecation pushes Google one notch closer to "boring megacorp" and one notch further away from the sort of cool "research garden" that Google is famous for being. I'm not saying Labs was the forefront of Google research, just that it was a fun, lighthearted place where nifty (and often quite strange) ideas could be trotted out.

For me it's not even so much the research angle, as the power-user-features angle. Via Google Labs you could enable features and interface customizations that for various reasons didn't make sense to put into the default product, especially in Gmail and Google Maps. Some were not at all researchy, just simple interface enhancements, like the "drop lat/lon marker" feature in Google Maps. I'll miss that flexibility if they don't replace it with some kind of advanced-options config.

Google Labs is different from the gmail/maps labs. See the linked blog post and http://www.googlelabs.com/.

Ah cool; it looks like that clarification was added in an update. I had assumed that those were part of the overall "Google Labs" project, but maybe that was just a (now-obsolete) branding strategy to tie together all the "labs" stuff.

Product-specific labs, like Google Maps Labs or Gmail Labs, are still staying. This announcement is only about Google Labs.

> Google Labs has been one of my favorite parts of Google for years

I prefer their open source page:


With projects such as closure, gwt, chromium, android,golang etc

> Anything that Google launches anywhere automatically gets a huge amount of traffic

...if it's actually Google-branded. Perhaps Google means to do its future experiments more like Searchmash, where the project just happened to be run by Google, but had no mention of Google anywhere on it.

Wrong on so many counts. Look at the Google Labs pages. There are 7 of them out with at least 1.5 are "graduated" to read products. Labs is very good playground when you don't know how things will shape and you don't want to be confined by corp mandates of tools, processes etc. If things takes off then it gets graduated to real product by having more people work on it.

If you look at Labs projects, many are pretty cool. Things like Google Groups came out of Labs.

Labs decision might be the stupidest decision yet execs have made there. They are investing huge in buying small start ups and they have even thing like Google ventures. It doesn't make any sense to kill of Labs.

Corporate labs are funny things. Where would the valley be without Xerox PARC or America without Bell Labs? But from the corporate view they are fairly inefficient. They are a very academic environment, working at a leisurely pace, not at all like startups or even the lean-and-mean among established companies. Self-education and publication is as much a goal as improving the bottom line. Eventually the suits take notice and start reorganizing things to bring the fruits of their labor immediately to market. It happened at Bell, at PARC and at a lab where I was resident. Unfortunately, the shift in focus doesnt really work. The researchers cant shift their timelines. Partially baked ideas dont easily become marketable products and the future becomes sacrificed to the immediate.

If you want short term results, the policy of engineers working on their own pet projects 20% time is really fruitful, but the promising ones then need time and resources to become fully realized. I think thats where Google failed.

Maybe Google is inventing something better than Google Labs. I can see a successful approach being to sprout mini-labs around promising projects where the developer(s) get resources like additional developers, designers, market researchers, QA and the like. This of course sounds a lot like internal entrepreneurial startups, which havent been notably successful. I can hope that Google has something more innovative up its sleeve than the bottom line.

Google Labs itself is just a repository of experimental projects, not a research organization. It is not the same idea as PARC, which is a research organization.

Relatedly, Steve Ballmer a few weeks ago at Microsoft's earnings:

"We increasingly are only working on things that are actually very important. The day and age of idle, smaller things [at Microsoft] is a little bit behind us. We're putting more energy behind fewer things than we have historically."[1]


This is probably a bigger news and also sadder as Microsoft labs does great research and really hardcore stuff that never sees daylight. Google labs on the other hand though is more consumer oriented.

I hope this isn't bad news for Swiffy, the very cool Flash->HTML5 converter they launched not long ago. Hopefully they'll commit to licensing the runtime so that people can continue to use their converted files. If they take it down, existing Swiffy conversions will stop working, and right now it says "All Rights Reserved" at the top of the runtime they host.

Anyone know if there are any plans to open source projects like this, or if there's a way to get in touch with someone who could do so? I've submitted feedback to their feedback form, but I'm not sure if it will be seen.


We're deprecating our platform for releasing technically interesting experiments that don't make us money

Sometimes you hear people say "we're like a startup inside of a big company." This is a great example of why it's hard to make that work. In a big company, you have one source of funding, and they can pull the plug at any moment--sometimes because your project is doing badly, and sometimes just because you don't fit into the overall corporate strategy this year. At a startup, you only die if you run out of money (which doesn't happen overnight), and if an existing investor says no, you can still raise capital on the open market.

I don't know anything about archery, but this strikes me as a weird metaphor - is the amount of wood that goes into an arrow really what makes it hit the target?

It's about aerodynamics: if most of the wood is sticking out sideways, the arrow won't fly very well. However, if it all is behind the tip, then it'll at least have a chance to fly. Then again, extending the metaphor, you'll have one really long arrow, and that won't fly very well either.

It's not the best metaphor but it is a relatively well known and understood saying for many native English speakers (at least in North America).

I think some people who have replied to you are trying way too hard to make the metaphor fit. Top item later today will be about a Hacker Newsian with feathers, arrowheads, and a sharp edged rock, being arrested by Google's security while muttering about trajectories and wind resistance and trying to catch Googlers in the cafeteria.

I've never heard it before today, I'm pretty surprised to hear you say that it is a common thing in North America.

It's not so common that I hear it often or anything. It might not even be as well known as I think it is.

/I'd/ never heard it before today - one old USian.

I'd guess it's a mass thing. The more mass you have in the shaft of your arrow, the more momentum it has- ergo, the further it flies and the harder it strikes the target.

I think it's more like: we've got 1 ton of wood. Should we make one really big arrow, or a million smaller ones?

If you're planning on making a 1-ton arrow, you better factor a massive ballista somewhere in those plans.

That's probably easier than the million bows it would take for the arrows.

Yeah, if you read the article heading instead of just these misleading comments, it says "More wood behind fewer arrows". So it makes sense. It's about focus. More resources behind few projects.

Yes... but one could just as easily say "more metal, fewer cars", which would likely just lead to hauling less people at a lower fuel efficiency. ;P What I think people (including me) are looking for is an explanation of where that idiom comes from.

A bigger arrow to hit a bigger target, perhaps? I don't know. I obviously intuit the metaphor, but it's sort of lost on me too.

Off to wikipedia...

Edit: Also, I should note that this tangential thread is why I love HN.

Maybe it's a momentum thing: an arrow with more wood would be heavier, and as a result it would create a greater impact.

Weird metaphor indeed.

... But have a shorter range.

Perhaps it is a good metaphor for killing off a blue-sky lab after all.

more mass = more efficienty energy transfer from bow to arrow, better energy conservation in flight, and deeper target penetration.

And you lose everything if it was aimed in the wrong direction.

I remember a quote from the person who worked on Google+ before heading for Facebook saying "things got to bureaucratic and political" or something to that effect. It feels like a downward spiral or at least seems like a common pattern where an organization loses its agility (not to be confused with "agile") and starts compensating with cutting down.

Labs had an amazing run but Google surely needs to re-invent itself to handle the challenges ahead. Honestly, their setup is not that different from Microsoft where they have cash cows concentrated in several areas whereas Apple has more flexibility with a wider range of services without being spread out too much.

Given the first-day issues with launching experiments under the Google brand, would it make sense for them to sometimes 'stealth launch' projects without an explicit Google branding? Experimentation is important for innovation.

Yes, and maybe with the side-effect of getting a truer read on reaction versus the reaction to experiments under a google banner.

Nonetheless it may make google a less fun place to be if they do drop a bunch of people, and they surely will lose some of their tech buzz cred.

I don't think there's been any implication that they're cutting people related to this change... I read it as the reverse - they're trying to focus the headcount they have on projects they consider more core to their business, which is probably more effective than adding headcount and keeping labs.

They've been doing this with Slide. Google bought them out a while back, but they're still operating under the Slide banner and operating more or less independent of Google.

I thought the new google was going to have more engineers in charge.

This does not feel like engineers in charge.

It feels like public relations people in charge.

I liked the customization that Labs offers (undo send in gmail being a brilliant example), but I can see where they're coming from on the focus front. So long as I get to keep the features I currently have enabled, I'm happy.

I believe this only applies to the "main" Google Labs (http://www.googlelabs.com/), not to things called "Labs" that are integrated in products like Gmail.

This is a big mistake for Google. One of the big allures of working for Google as an engineer is doing something that gets millions of views. Google Labs is one of the most exciting aspects of this idea, since it lets engineers showcase anything they create to millions of consumers. Now only products that are already in line with the Google products will have the same amount of publicity. This is a very sad day for Google engineers. I will not be surprised to see Google loose even more talented geniuses because of this. Goodbye innovation, hello corporation.

Given the issue of launching projects under the weight of the Google brand, I don't see why Google doesn't borrow the idea of Hollywood studios to just have a 'separate studio' brand for things that aren't ready for the big time, while still letting them go live to users

(I realize this is about focusing energy on Google Plus, I'm just concerned they won't bring Labs back)

This isn't April Fool joke, is it?

Google's '20 percent time' will still allow employees to keep experimenting.


goodbye pagespeed / pagespeedonline / mod_pagespeed ...

Uh, no. It's open source, so even if Google took it down you could put it on Github and keep maintaining it. It'll likely just move to Google Code.

How does this affect existing labs products? For instance I use apps like Google goggles, Google listen, My Tracks, and Shopper

More dead wood behind fewer sharp ideas.

Does this mean I might lose my Multiple Inbox on GMail? ... I hope at least that one sticks.

so the strategy is we'll just buy innovation or we don't care about innovation?

Fewer arrows? Is that how you say "fewer sharp people"?

Does this include Gmail labs? If so, fuck.

Apparently not.

it really was just a matter of time.

Google labs lab winding down

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