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Is Google too big to get anything done?

With the recent launch of Google+, Linux User columnist Simon Brew wonders if the search giant has the power to reinvent social networking…

The old policy with Google, that used to work really quite well, was to launch something early and fix it as it went along. It used to make visiting the Google Labs part of its website really quite interesting, as you got to tinker with projects that may not even ever see the light of day. And, crucially, you got a snapshot of some of its thinking, and what kind of ideas it was working on.

You can still see Google Labs (though not for much longer since the recent announcement of its demise). Google Body, for instance, lets you zoom in and out of the human frame. There’s Fast Flip, too, which lets you quickly take in the headlines of newspapers. And then Art Project allows you to virtually navigate the museums of the world. All intriguing ideas, and the Labs usually have something tucked away that’s worth a look.

What I wonder, though, is where all of Google’s good ideas lie these days. Because the firm itself has a problem, and there’s little getting away from it. And it’s quite simply how big and dominant it has grown. No longer can Google sneak out a product like it might have done in the old days. Instead, the Google stamp brings with it a degree of scrutiny that must work as a double-edged sword.

Take Google+, its latest foray into social networking, which has something of a Microsoft feel about it. By that I mean it took an existing market that was popular and has tried to crack it. Microsoft attempted this with games consoles and succeeded. It tried it with Zune and it failed. Google? It’s surprisingly failed to really crack social networking, having acquired YouTube and watched the likes of Google Buzz and Google Wave fail to take hold in any meaningful way.

Yet you can’t force a social product onto the market. Look at how Facebook and Twitter actually developed. Both worked on a no-revenue model at first, powered by what could be done, rather than how much market share could be snared. Granted, as time went on, their respective size meant business realities kicked in for them. But had a corporation tried to bring Facebook and Twitter into the world, then I’d wager a sizeable amount of cash that they would have failed.

In fact, just look at MySpace. Once that went under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch, the investment model changed. The desire to innovate went away, and presumably there was a spreadsheet and posh meeting to account for every new feature that the developers wanted to try. The end result? MySpace became staid, and people abandoned it. Quickly.

Google, with Google+, is basically trying to sell people something they don’t seem to want or need. It’s interesting thinking, in that it makes social networking far more implicit. But it seems a little odd, and it seems to me that Google doesn’t have the nimbleness it needs to really make this happen. If you want proof that the market itself might not be certain either, then note that closed Google+ invites are trading for a fraction of a price that Google Wave equivalents used to go for. Google just isn’t that exciting any more, not since it became so big.

The next big innovations in social networking, just as with the last ones, will be fired up by the open source community, before probably heading off to a money-making future. I’m pretty sure of that. And while Google may have more success with Google+ than Wave, it has no magic wand here. And I can’t help thinking that might be a good thing…