Google Labs Dropouts and Failures

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Google Labs Goes to the Graveyard

Google Labs
2002 - 2011.

Google Labs was launched in May of 2002. The idea was to create a "playground" for Google engineers to experiment with crazy new ideas, mostly done as side projects during twenty percent time.

Over the years, Google Labs has incubated some big projects, such as Google Spreadsheets (Which later became Google Docs), Google Desktop, Google Maps, and Google Trends. It's also helped launch some small projects that significantly enhanced existing Google products.

In 2011, with an announcement that Google would be putting "more wood in fewer arrows," Google Labs formally joined the Google Graveyard. That doesn't mean that Google will end all Google Labs experiments. Some will go on to graduate and become products with full Google support, and individual apps will maintain their own labs, so you'll still see TestTube, Blogger in Draft, and other similar test labs for pre-release products. What you won't see is the same number of crazy ideas as standalone products.

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Google City Tours

City Tours

Of all the Google Labs experiments to get the ax, City Tours is probably the most heartbreaking cut. The idea behind City Tours is that if you were visiting a new city, you could instantly plan a walking tour that plotted local attractions and kept the destination's hours of operation in mind with the suggestion. Here's Googler Matt Cutts showing ​City Tours in action.

City Tours never went beyond major tourist destinations, but it had amazing potential. You could map out a three day trip with around 10 destination suggestions per day, although the early versions made the mistake of using distance as the crow flies rather than actual walking distance, and it assumed you didn't need lunch, rest, flexible plans or transportation other than feet. Major cities had tour info, but smaller cities were still a little neglected. In other words, it needed a lot of work, but it had amazing potential.

You can still use Google Maps to plan your vacations. It may even be better since you can change plans on the fly. If you've got a phone with a data plan, you can even get step by step walking directions. You can also see ratings and enhanced information about destinations through an attractions place page. Still, it was great to have a starting point. Hopefully, Google will rethink this idea and figure out a way to make tourist maps easier than ever.

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Google Breadcrumb

Google Breadcrumb
2011, RIP.

Did I say City Tours hurt? It wasn't the only painful cut. Google Breadcrumb was a quiz generator for non-programmers. Google Breadcrumb quiz apps could be generated for mobile or Web users, and all you had to fill out was a text form. Although text quizzes and "Choose Your Own Adventure" style games are somewhat limited in scope, it was still nice to have the tool, however, limited the run. 

Sadly, any quiz you created using Google Breadcrumb is now gone along with the ability to make new ones. 

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Google News Fast Flip

Google News Fast Flip
2009-2011. Image courtesy Google

Fast Flip was designed to bring more of a newspaper browsing experience to Google News. The idea was to allow impatient news readers the ability to rapidly flip through pages of news content until they found a relevant article to read. There was also a mobile version to bring a finger swipe motion to the rapid flipping. A number of publications, including the New York Times (our parent company) participated in the experiment to see if it increased reader engagement and page views.

One can only conclude that it wasn't as successful as they'd hoped, since the project died with Google Labs and service officially ended on September 5, 2011. However, the comments indicated that the users who did try it loved the experience and were upset with its demise. We'll no doubt see the more successful elements of Fast Flip incorporated into Google News as a whole.

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Script Conversion

Google Transliterate
2011 RIP. Image Courtesy Google

Script Conversion was geared towards people who could understand the spoken language but could not read the script. The idea was to convert back and forth from languages like English, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Persian, and Hindi. While that's really cool, it was also a duplicated effort. Google directed users to switch to Google Transliteration instead. The code for Google Transliteration API was depreciated in May of 2011, but there were no plans to remove the functionality.

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Google purchased a quirky Web app called Aardvark in 2010. The service was a social networking tool that allowed you to ask questions to "the Internet" and have someone with related expertise hopefully answer. This was sort of like writing a "Dear Hive-mind" question on your blog or Twitter account, but theoretically in a way that only engaged with people who actually wanted to answer that sort of question.

I registered for an Aardvark account as soon as Google purchased it, and I can see why they decided to shut it down. It was fun to answer questions, but the Aardvark service grew more irritating over time. Depending on your settings, Aardvark could prompt (bug) you by email or instant message whenever a relevant question appeared, and the Aardvark engine wasn't always very good at matching relevant questions with your stated skill set.

The idea was interesting, but sometimes Google purchases services more for the expertise of the employees rather than the value of the service itself. Was Aardvark one of those, or did they secretly hope answering questions by IM would be the next Twitter? Whatever the case, Google's energy is probably much better spent on Google+.

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Google Squared

Google Squared

Google Squared was an interesting experiment in semantic search. Rather than strictly finding search results, Google Squared would attempt to list categories that matched the search query and list the results on a grid. It worked well for some searches and poorly on others, and it really never felt like anything other than an interesting experiment. Google had already incorporated some of Google Squared technology into the main Google search engine, so it isn't a tragic loss to see it go. I doubt many people thought Google Squared would survive as a standalone app.

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Google App Inventor

Google App Inventor for Android

Google App Inventor is a way for non-programmers to be introduced into the world of Android app development. The idea is built around MIT's Scratch project and uses the idea of interlocking puzzle pieces of code to create an app you could even market on the Android Market. You can even use App Inventor with the popular Lego Mindstorms robot building kits.

The product is slightly less intuitive than it sounds from that description. While it's easier to program than learning Java, it's not quite a walk through the park for a new programmer. I've also heard a Google developer tell me that the apps work, but the "code is a mess under the hood."

However, App Inventor is not getting the direct kiss of death. Instead, it gets thrown to the mercy of the open source community. Perhaps it will flourish and be developed into something awesome that everyone uses to develop for Android. Perhaps it will be out of date with the next Android update and die a lingering and slow death. Google is considering continued support of App Inventor as an open source tool, just because it has proven to be so popular in the education community.

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Google Sets

Google Sets died with Google Labs
Google Sets 2002-2011.

One of the first Google Labs experiments went down with the ship. Google Sets was a simple little tool. You put three or more items that you thought went together, and Google attempted to find more members of the set. For instance, a set of "red, green, yellow" would yield more colors.

I doubt anyone thought Google Sets was going to stick around as a standalone product, but it didn't take up enough resources to necessitate pulling it until all of Google Labs got shut down. Elements of Google Sets were already in the main Google search engine as it began to understand semantic language and yield better search results.

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