April 22, 2015

When Google Leaves Users Behind

I was just now reading over the publicity materials related to Google's newly announced (but long rumored) "Project Fi" wireless plan/experiment today, and found myself pondering a question. To wit: If I had the currently required Nexus 6 smartphone, would I be applying to be included in this new mobile offering?

And I realized the answer was no. Not so much because my current phone and plan are completely adequate to my needs, but rather for a couple of more depressing reasons.

One of these is the painful realization that I wouldn't necessarily have confidence that Google won't be abandoning this effort in relatively short order, triggering possible hassles at the egress end of the offer. Perhaps Project Fi signals the birth of a wonderful, consumer friendly, disruptive change to mobile that is long overdue. Or, Google might decide in a year or two just to pull the plug on it with short notice -- there are certainly well remembered precedents for the latter outcome from Google.

Another reason for my own current lack of enthusiasm for Project Fi is my personal embarrassment (I've consulted to Google) at the shabby way Google has treated -- and continues to treat -- many of their existing Android users.

I'm an enormous fan of Android, and totally committed to the Android ecosystem. But for the life of me I can't find valid justifications for Google's abandonment of literally vast numbers of Android users currently using older devices. Not everyone can afford to treat smartphones and tablets as easily disposable, especially when they seem to functioning perfectly well from the users' perspective.

Yet so many of these users are actually vulnerable to serious security flaws because Google refuses to patch the versions of Android still being run by large numbers of persons.

Google has a range of explanations/excuses for this. Technical difficulty with backports. Uncooperative carriers. Concentrating efforts on the latest and greatest (more on that in a moment).

It's notable how quickly Google abandoned users even of their own flagship phones like the Galaxy Nexus when purchased directly from Google, where carrier cooperation wasn't even an issue (Google's excuse in this case was lack of driver support from a chip vendor, but somehow third-party hackers found a way around that problem.)

Given, no phone or other device lasts forever. Yet Google has (to my knowledge) not even directly, proactively informed users of these older devices about the security issues associated with these units, nor informed them regarding the useful workarounds that actually do exist in many of these cases. Is it better for users to proceed using their devices in blitheful ignorance of these issues? I don't think so, anyway.

Again, I'm not suggesting that Google be required to update these older units forever. But why isn't there at least an official, well known Google page that directly and specifically explains the security status of these devices and the aforementioned workaround procedures? Why must users depend on (not always trustworthy) outside articles (or blogs!) to learn about these matters? Google should take ownership of these important issues, rather than depending on others to dribble out such crucial information.

Google's seemingly endless juggernaut of great products belies problems that are not by any means unique to Google, but can ensnare large firms of any stripe, especially if they're engineering oriented.

It's all too easy to focus on the latest and greatest, while too quickly de-emphasizing serious consideration and maintenance of older products used by fewer users. Yet at the scale of many such firms, even relatively small percentages of users can represent very large numbers of actual human beings, many of whom are particularly in need of continuing attention, by virtue of their inability to buy into those wondrous new devices at the rate common for the early adopters.

And let's face it, engineering-oriented firms are often structured in a manner where career advancement is largely predicated on working in the bleeding edge of development -- there's little incentive for employees to seek roles maintaining older systems, backporting security patches, or refactoring code.

But these are all crucial roles, for the ways in which a firm supports all users, including those not in the new products adoption forefront, directly impacts public perception of how a firm's newer offerings will be perceived, and how that firm's treatment of users overall will be judged.

Something to think about perhaps, the next time you hear of a possibly great new product being announced. For one of the ways through which we can most clearly anticipate the future -- even our technological futures -- is to understand how we've been treated in the past.

Be seeing you -- in the future.


Posted by Lauren at April 22, 2015 02:19 PM | Permalink
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