Weblogs: Web Development

The value of innovation

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The value in innovation isn't in the actual innovation itself, it's in the opportunities that are created because of the innovation. An innovation in one area leads to competitive advantages in other areas.

Google is a fantastic example of the real benefits of innovation. Their 20% time allows their engineers time to contemplate what is wrong with the world, and fix them. As with typical startups, failure rate is high, but the payoff of one success can be substantial.

Just another web-based email client

Gmail is the predominant example of a 20% time idea making it into a real Google offering. It was innovative in taking a web-based email client and increasing the user experience to levels only seen in native desktop applications. It took advantage of Ajax to streamline the workflow of dealing with email, and succeeded exceptionally well.

Gmail isn't a leading web-based email client. The top dog is Yahoo! Mail. Gmail made Yahoo's offering look clunky and downright unusable. Yahoo's five year redevelopment of the acquired OddPost still hasn't caught up to the overall quality of Gmail.

And Gmail is eating into Yahoo! Mail's lead as more people flock to Google's services. Some of those people will be people looking for a better web-based email client, others will adopt Gmail because they are using other Google offerings more and more in their daily lives.


The value of Gmail doesn't stop there. Email is a personalised application, and so requires authentication and login, it requires identity. Gmail's login is now handled by Google Accounts, which is Google's application for managing customer identity.

A search engine doesn't need identity, so it seems odd for Google to build a dedicated service to deal with user account creation and authentication. But, this is an instrumental move from Google from just an anonymous public services into personalised experiences. Google have even used identity to enhance the hallowed ground of their own search.


Today, a customer logged into Google can get a personalised search start page. Their personalised homepage offers modules of content from across the Google network, and from across the world wide web. Instead of Google search pushing people out of Google to other people's sites, Google's personalised homepage brings regular personalised content to the user.

Gmail benefits even more with customer accounts - realtime collaboration. The innovation of being able to communicate directly with your email contacts over IM is indeed a game changer. It's perhaps the most widely recognised use of the open-standards Jabber instant messaging platform. And even that innovation opens up avenues for further innovation - as a client for Twitter. Gmail is the personal nerve center.


Gmail has gone from an email client to a must-have collaboration tool. And yet, at any time, you can download all your email from Google and put it into your desktop email client and stop using GMail altogether. But then you lose out on the benefits of a seamless integration between email, instant messaging, and personal information management.

The real innovation of Gmail is giving Google an excuse to have a customer identity service - before Gmail they didn't need this. With a centralised user identity service adding new customer-oriented services is streamlined. So there was no surprise that Google Docs integrated so well - and now that is a serious competitor to Microsoft Office and Open Office in the lower end of the market.

Knowledge gathering

It's the ability to personalise content where the real innovation is happening. Google's personalised homepages needed to solve the problem of how to integrate content from anywhere onto one page without one content block affecting another.

Google engineered a solution for bringing together content across the web into one single page, and that solution, admittedly crude, became the backbone for Open Social. Open Social is an abstraction of Google's personalised homepage solution, it empowers any site to display content from many other websites.

Social engineering

Social networking websites tagged along with Google's initiative, providing a compelling demonstration of interoperability through Google's inaugural Campfire evenings. Every major social networking site was represented, except Facebook.

Social networks benefit from Google's opening of its own personalised homepage services. The current path of innovation doesn't stop there.

Every site is a social network

A few weeks ago, Google announced Friend Connect; a practical solution for adding social networking features to any website. Every website can have its own social network, a community of visitors that are brought together by a common interest or goal. As a strategic counter to Facebook, it's a masterpiece.

Social network leader

Google are the de facto leader in open-standards social networks. But their core product is a search engine. It's a paradoxical situation, and probably not what Google anticipated from its original roots of keyword search. (And there's still no such thing as the Google Social Network!)

Google have made it possible for millions of social networks to flourish, using their code, their architecture, their identity system. Google manages the content generated by these social networks. They manage the identity of the website owner (but not the identities of the visitors). They manage the content created through that social network, as well as the attention data.

From Gmail to social network leadership

Google's 20% time has opened the doors to innovation from their employees. Google did themselves a favour by taking employees' ideas seriously. It would have been so easy to look at Gmail, point out that it has nothing to do with Google's key products, and nix the idea.

Google did something different. They took a risk opening Gmail to the public. They created a new offering unlike any other offering they had, and they were essentially forced to move away from generic search into customer specific and personalised content.

With personalised content came the requirement of dealing with visitor identity. And identities open up many avenues of value and further innovation because they allow sites to talk directly to a visitor in a personable manner.

Google are taking advantage of identity to provide a personalised experience to visitors. Gmail is but one of many destinations, but the real value is in the user profile because it enables other sources of value.

Starting with a web-based email client, Google have travelled a road that's led them into being the de facto leader in open-standards social networks.

The value in innovation isn't in the innovation itself, it's in the value of the further opportunities it opens up.

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