Google's Spring Cleaning, Or, Why You Can't Trust The Cloud

Google has gotten to be pretty good at introducing cross-platform services that bring productivity and efficiency into our daily lives. But increasingly one has to wonder: why the hell should we care about services that, like every other in the cloud, could disappear at any given moment?

This week alone, rumors were out about Google Babble, a new effort to combine the different communication services (like Talk, Hangout and Chat) into one client/platform.

Then there were the confirmed efforts to hook third-party apps into using Google Drive, which would enable Google to act as the repository for application generated data.

Finally, just yesterday, the new Google Keep app for Android debuted, a service that, if it gets more features and maturity, could give Evernote a run for its money. But I have to ask myself, why in the world would I want to use a service like this from Google when they could, with two magic words, arbitrarily decide to drop the service if it doesn't work out for them?

Those words? "Spring Cleaning." (Or, "Fall Cleaning," depending on the date.)

Now, in full disclosure, I am very unlikely to use Google Keep anyway, since I still - still! - can't seem to integrate Evernote into my life.

But even if I were inclined to use Keep, "spring cleaning" comes back to remind me that putting my trust in Google services is becoming a bad idea.

It's Always About The Money

Let me be blunt: spring (or fall) cleaning for Google is really a breezy little marketing term for "we can't figure out how to monetize this, so it's gone." Looking at the most recent spring cleaning blog from Google, which lists the closures of APIs and services that Google will no longer support, that certainly seems to be the case. That, or they're changing things up in order to get increased revenue from existing services.

Google Reader, of course, was the service that got the most attention in this latest round of spring cleaning, with good reason: a service that's been around since 2005, has tens if not hundreds of thousands of users, and Google just up and decides to ax it. It is particularly irksome for me, since I use Reader as the main service provider for my Reeder app on iOS and OS X. I'll do the manual extract and import using Google Takeout, so in the long run, I'm only out an hour of work time.

But here's the thing: what other services does Google have that could get spring cleaning treatment someday?

I notice, for instance, Google News doesn't have ads, nor will it in the near future, because the only thing that keeps most publishers from suing Google is that Google doesn't generate direct revenue from Google News. (And even that doesn't stop some publishers.) At what point does Google look at the amount of effort they put into News and see they're not getting the expected returns?

Google Voice, which provides voice-over-IP, voice mail and transcription services users, does have a Skype-like freemium model, where the voicemail and Google-provided phone number is free, but making outbound international calls from the U.S. costs something. With a little revenue coming in - and, possibly, integration into Babble on the horizon - maybe Voice won't be on the chopping block.

More Ways To Revenue

There are other ways to get revenue than ads, of course. Google + doesn't have ads (now), but Google has been pushing +1 functionality on ads in their Display Network for quite some time, so there's revenue being generated in there.

My fixation on ads is unfortunate, since an ad-free world would be nice. But nothing in life is free, and without some way to generate money for a given service, eventually that service will have to be shuttered or changed into something that can pull in the revenue - something I might not like.

Google has gotten to the point where, try as they might, they can no longer afford to keep services sans revenue going indefinitely. As a publicly traded company, they can't. Google has to demonstrate to shareholders at the end of the day that they are doing everything possible to generate more revenue.

Am I saying that it is never okay to trust Google? That's going to depend on your level of trust. As a consumer, my personal comfort zone is becoming seriously encroached. I look around at all of the Google-based services I use (Gmail, Calendar, Maps, Voice, News) for work and personal use and wonder if this road I have traveled with good intentions isn't leading me to a very troublesome spot.

Beyond Google

The fault lies not with Google alone, either. This is a whole cloud services concern. I won't use Keep, but I am trying to use Evernote and I do use Omnifocus. Comixology stores the comics that won't fit on my iPad. Trello manages my workflow. Amazon holds movies and TV shows that my family have purchased.

So what happens when one of these companies goes belly up? Or their servers go down? Or there's a payment mix up and they decide to kill my account? These are problems that would range from pain in the ass to outright catastrophes, depending on the circumstances.

There is a mythos in the U.S. psyche that we must own things. Own a car, not lease it. Buy a house, not rent. But cloud services increasingly put us in the position of renting, or putting up with unwanted features (ads) to get something for free.

And, even if we do "own" something on the cloud, it's far more ephemeral than storing it in the physical world. I can own a movie on a DVD, and, sure, it can get lost, stolen, damaged or destroyed here in my house. Nothing in life is permanent. But in the cloud, things we buy are even more out of our direct control, and subject to the technical, legal and financial whims of the vendor holding our stuff.

If anything, Google's spring cleaning is a great reminder of those whims, and a wake-up call to anyone thinking about any cloud service. Go ahead and use what you want, but always make sure you have an exit strategy in place for when you want to leave, or the cloud vendor decides to close the store.

Image courtesy of Google.