James Governor's Monkchips

Why Google is not about constraint-based design, 37Signals is, Europe too

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If you don’t think its fair to criticise the powerful and successful don’t read on. That may be somewhat of a constraint on who reads this.
Vinnie linked to me after I wrote some negative comments about Blogger yesterday (others agreed), and pointed to an interview where Marissa Mayer talks about  how Google builds products around constraints. Fast company also used the theme back in November.
What a crock.
Google believes in constraints the same way vice president Cheney is a sniper.
What – did Google read some articles from 37 signals or something, or watch a keynote by David Heinemeier Hansson? Certainly the constraint narrative could have lifted wholesale from the work done by the crew at 37 signals, a firm that actually lives the constraint-based story, and helps to communicate it. Signal to Noise…Here is an interesting googlefight.
There may have been a time when Google believed in constraint-based design (or was the original homepage a happy accident?). These days however Google doesn’t appear to believe in constraints. There are some constraints Google follows, such as those the Chinese government demands… [cheap shot]. 
But other than that its all about plenty. Come on Googleaires- when you start thinking about how to get into the space flight business you surely don’t have constraints front of mind.
Geoffrey Moore recently argued that Europe believes in intelligent design, which is “outmoded” (hat tip Ian). I would argue Europeans tend to believe in constraint-based design, which is a different thing altogether. Its not about top down command and control, but understanding that resources are scarce, and need to be bounded accordingly. Darwin was English wasn’t he?
When my mother was a small child, sugar was a treat. She didn’t get chocolate for years. Fruit was a luxury. England was deeply in hock to America then, after the second world war, and rationing continued well into the 1950s. I am talking serious national sacrifice, something that changes the mentality of a nation, or a continent. My grandmother even darned my socks…
Stop and think about that in our Walmart era-fixing a pair of socks, by hand, to make them last longer. Was my grandmother a fool for that, or was she wise enough to know socks can go down as well as up? šŸ˜‰
Darwinism is about finding a niche and establishing a constraint-based equilibrium there…. . Darwin never said that unfettered growth and over-consumption is a good in itself- that is not Darwinism, its just the Wall Street Journal’s take on it.
Never deleting any emails… that’s a great example of constraint-based design?
Forcing people to use Blogger to comment on Blogger. That’s worrying about constraints? 
Google Video was initially predicated on the notion of no constraints, or filters, as Marisa herself recently aknowledged. People couldn’t find the TV shows they wanted to download.
Rolling out Google Analytics to more customers than it can handle, and not ring-fencing paying customers. How is that constraint-based?
From where I sit Google is about:
We have more smarter people than anyone else.
We have more money than anyone else.
Nobody can touch the level of resources we can muster.
[don’t follow the link if you’re drinking a beverage or your nose might get burned] 
I would argue not invented here means not resource constrained enough, and Google has the NIH disease pretty bad, from conversations I have had with other Silicon Valley technology people. “Yes but can it do this” – is a common refrain. No but can it do this..?
Constraints tend to encourage companies to share intellectual property and engage in what Irving Wladawsky Berger calls collaborative innovation. Not much evidence of same from Google.
Until Google comes up with another product as elegant as the original search page, I can’t believe that simplicity and constraints are driving the company.
Where is Google’s Ruby On Rails? Where is its Basecamp? Its iPod?
A warning to Google from the true holders of the constraint-based development flame: be careful or you could go the way of Star Wars.
So have I discovered the link between little plastic Chewbacca dolls and ad-supported business models in the software business? When merchandising or advertising become the business, then the original service proposition suffers. 
It is not my intention to attack Google all the time. It is going to be a great company that will change the world. But I sincerely believe that the sooner it realises that constraints really do matter, and acts accordingly, it will make some really poor business and design decisions.  That’s why we should speak up.
I would like to know what Google’s real narrative is. Constraint-based design feels more like something it borrowed from someone. Borrowing eh – maybe than its more constrained than I thought…


  1. good points but you did not address my bigger question – what are we getting for $ 6 b in R&D at Microsoft, 1.6 at Oracle, IBm etc

    you are criticing individual features …heck i would like to see even alpha versions at much cheaper and faster cycles. Google is showing that – we can argue about its evilness, privacy, China seperately

  2. James: I think that Google is doing just as good as anyone else. Their product churn is faster then the other 3 (AOL,YAHOO,MSFT). They are developing the products and feature as the internet as the OS type paradigm.

    Recently they iniatated the 10K student gmail accounts for SJCC.
    They outsource bearingpoint for their enterpise search folio. (Now thats interesting stuff) BearkingPoints is bearingpoints :)-
    They clam up against the DOJ and fight their case *unlike AOL , YAHOO , MSFT*
    They are intergaring Mobile Apps’ faster the Code Magneto (winmobile5.0) can handle.

    ..and for whats it worth.. “googleit” has become a normal verb.. :)- !!

  3. Paul Strassmann says Google may well fail.

  4. Haven’t some of Google’s best products been aimed at relatively trivial problems, such as e-mail? Their XMPP client shows potential. Where’s Google’s RoR? How about Firefox? (ie http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2006/02/14.html#a1387.)

    Better email, funding and developing for an open IM protocol, and paying to put out better browsers: not bad. Like you, however, I doubt there are rigid constraints on those initiatives. Does it matter?

  5. …Google Earth?

  6. Not entirely sure where your arguments are leading to. The examples of iPod and BaseCamp are good examples of industrial design, but I’d tender that attention is the real constraint. Of which, Google, Apple and 37Signals are addressing really well.

    a) All the products are easy to learn,
    b) All require very little time “gardening”, e.g. not having to delete or file away e-mails

    In fact, I’d go as far as saying that Google is an attention broker. I have X amount of time to research something, Google pays for my attention span with it’s search results, while advertisers pay Google for my attention span.


  7. Chui, great point – I would take Chui’s point and stretch it in the enterprise to TCO. If you as a vendor are not empathetic to a client’s budget (how much your integration partners make, how much pain your next release causes etc) it does not really matter how efficient or innovative your own shop is. Your customer/user’ s constraint is the measure…his/her attention, budget…as I wrote in a blog a few weeks ago Innovation is when you go wow not gulp…

  8. I Love Google, or, Google Bashing: We Love to Hate What We Love

    Our man in England had quite a bit to say about Mr. $343.32 A Share earlier today. Side Note: “Today” The notion of “today” starts to loose meaning when your work is spread across time zones. Steve is in Denver,…

  9. I agree with you completely. After the search, almost all of Google’s products have suffered from innovation in design. Google Video Store was a disaster I thought. Comparing them to 37S is not fair. I am sure 37S can come up with a much smarter Gmail design that what Google has right now.

    I am not sure why one has to compare Google to AOL, Yahoo or MSFT. Shouldn’t we be comparing them to the more innovative players out there? Just because their search is the best and that interface works the best, doesn’t mean their design philosphy is good enough.

  10. Clearly most of my problems are too small for Google to be bothered with.

  11. Web 2.0 IDE’s and Constraint-based Design

    James sent over a post from John Montgomery wondering out-loud what a web based IDE would look like, or if it’s even possible and/or desirable. I know: it sounds crazy to all us developer types out there. The web is…

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