The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Google’s trust problem

James Fallows likes software meant to help him organize and simplify his life. So, naturally, he moved immediately to download Google Keep, the search giant's "new app for collecting notes, photos, and info."

The problem, Fallows quickly realized, is that he wasn't sure he could trust it.

Google now has a clear enough track record of trying out, and then canceling, "interesting" new software that I have no idea how long Keep will be around. When Google launched its Google Health service five years ago, it had an allure like Keep's: here is the one place you could store your prescription info, test readings, immunizations, and so on and know that you could get at them. That's how I used it -- until Google cancelled this "experiment" last year. Same with Google Reader, and all the other products in the Google Graveyard that Slate produced last week.

And if there's even a 25 percent chance that Google Keep will be canceled in two years, do you really want to be the sucker who spent endless hours organizing your life around it?

Now, most people don't use Google Reader, or even know it's being canceled. Same for Google Wave, Google Buzz, Google Health and Picnik, and all the rest of the beloved little apps that have been sent to that cloud above the cloud, where data is stored forever and servers never overload. This is a pained whine emanating almost exclusively from Google power users.

Most people, however, also aren't the sort of early adopters who will rush to download Google Keep. But Fallows is that kind of early adopter. So am I. And Google needs early adopters. They need weirdos to rush to download their new apps, try them out, offer feedback, and, ultimately, proselytize to their friends. And I do all that! For instance, have you ever tried using Sleep Cycle? This isn't an early adopter thing -- the app has been around for awhile -- but I just started using it and am now annoying everyone I know badgering them to try waking up to Sleep Cycle. It'll change your life.

But I'm not sure I want to be a Google early adopter anymore. I love Google Reader. And I used to use Picnik all the time. I'm tired of losing my services.

In fact, I'm starting to worry a bit about Gmail, which is at the core of pretty much my entire life. I know, I know -- Gmail is safe. The data it feeds into the Google mainframe is extremely valuable to the search giant. They won't let anything happen to it.

But I'm a heavy user of Gmail. And so I've been buying more space on Google's servers. Recently, I hit 30 gigs -- and learned Google won't let me purchase any more room. The service which once swore I'd never have to delete a message now tells me my only option is to delete gigabyte after gigabyte of past e-mails.

That's their right, of course. But it was a reminder that Google's core business isn't running an e-mail system or selling data storage. The thing I wanted to pay them to do wasn't something they make much money off. So now I'm a bit nervous: I freed up a good number of gigabytes, but now I've run through much of the low-hanging fruit, and the bar measuring how far I am from my storage unit is beginning to tick up again.

The problem, I'm beginning to think, is simply mismatch. The core services of Google's business are often not the Google services I rely on most. And even when their core products and my needs do meet, the business connection is indirect.

In this, Gmail is a good example. Google just needs me logged into their system so they can amass data on my browsing habits. That's the business. They don't make their money by giving me -- or even letting me pay for -- a superb e-mail program that offers unlimited storage. That's just how the business was sold. But perhaps that's the business I need.

Together, the Gmail experience, the death of Google Reader, and the closure of Picnik all have me questioning whether I want to keep investing time and energy in "free" Google products or whether I need to start looking for paid services that are explicitly making money off the thing I am paying them to do. And if more and more of the people who would be Google's early adopters feel as I do, and as Fallows does, then that could become a problem for Google.