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Google's endless app overlap: What's going on?
This article started as a short piece titled “Google’s Tasks App is Pointless.” As I wrote, it turned out I had much more to say on what is becoming a growing issue with Google’s approach to product development. The company has adopted a pattern of fragmenting its services, making them more confusing to use and often considerably less functional. Some would say Google has been doing this for years, but things only seem to be getting worse, not better.
Tasks is just another symptom of Google’s long-time product development approach which is littered with failed apps, fractured redundancy, and wasted branding and promotional efforts.
Failing the Tasks at hand
In Google’s new Gmail revamp, one of its most highly touted additions is Tasks. While this function was available before the visual revamp, it was only for G Suite customers and buried in settings most folks would never turn on. Furthermore, it was not joined by a companion Android app — an all-important step in making the product fully mainstream — until the Gmail refresh.
I was excited to try Tasks because in addition to contributing to DGiT, I run a business with offices in three locations on two continents. We use G Suite for everything, so being able to integrate Google’s own task manager right into Gmail to organize things sounded like the next logical step in our workflow.
Sadly, what Google has provided is nearly pointless — especially for a productivity-oriented target demographic.
When I think of task managers, I immediately think of fully integrated and production-oriented apps like Asana and Trello, or even something like Facebook’s Workplace. These apps let you assign multiple people or teams to a task and switch assigned people at will. In terms of productivity, these are pretty basic functions. Google’s new product, however, is really only designed for one person: me. Or, you. But not both of us at the same time.
I can’t create a new task and assign it to my business partner. I can’t create groups with other users in our company, nor can I keep tabs on what they are doing. As a task manager, Google has put out a product that fails at doing what I — and likely most people working on a team — need.
For all its failings, at least Tasks is well integrated into both Gmail and Calendar, but only for you.
Tasks could be a nice addition for personal users, as it is a cleaner way to make a quick note than Keep. Similarly, it’s well integrated into both Gmail and Calendar, and that synergy is really a highlight of the new Gmail presentation.
Even so, I keep asking myself why I can’t assign something to my wife, or share a task between the two of us. Shared events still rely on Calendar, while shopping lists are still in Keep. Furthermore, I can’t assign a time that something needs to be done — I either have to set a Calendar appointment or pull up Google Assistant to make a reminder. Integration has some major limitations, even outside of the demands of the workplace.
Tasks seems like an App that may be great at one small thing for some folks, but that doesn't really need to exist.
Redundancy, but with what goal?
Tasks may be great at one small thing for some folks, but it doesn’t really need to exist. It only complicates and fragments Google’s world that much more. In this regard, Tasks reminds me a lot of Google’s current crop of messaging apps, including Hangouts, Hangouts Chat, Messages, and Allo. All of these apps have different functions for different people — none provide a single, cohesive solution for everyone.
Tasks seems like yet another app Google has debuted essentially as a placeholder for some future development. Or, looked at another way, it is yet another beta product from Google’s throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to product development.
Tasks seems designed solely to test out the integration of Gmail, Calendar, and a “Future Unnamed Keep-Tasks Hybrid” app (or something). No real thought seems to have gone into how productivity or enterprise users would actually want to effectively employ it. Indeed, for Google to really compete with apps like Asana or Trello, it will need to merge Hangouts Meet, Tasks, Keep, and Calendar in a way that integrates them all in one window. That is a lot to ask, but Tasks doesn’t really get us any closer to that goal.
Branding, branding, everywhere
Every time Google launches a product or service like this, it creates an uphill marketing battle.
Instead of releasing a great product with (nearly) full functionality, Google releases what seems like a beta product it then has to convince people is useful or relaunch the service every time it changes its mind about what the product is or how customers should use it.
This is as much a branding issue as much as a product design issue. It is something Google has displayed all the way to the very top of its structure when it changed the conglomerate’s parent company name to Alphabet.
We’ve seen some smart changes in the move from Android Pay to Google Pay, which utilizes the much bigger brand awareness of Google. We’ve also seen questionable moves, like moving Hangouts from a web-and-mobile chat app for everyone — with wide-ranging functionality rivaling Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp — to an enterprise-focused communication app.
Hangouts had some major issues, but it was a recognized brand name Google could have streamlined instead of creating three new apps (Messages for RCS/SMS texting, Allo for mobile and web chatting, and Duo for video calls).
Just like Tasks seems to be a publicly-released development module for “future-Keep,” Allo has basically been relegated to being the development app for Messages. RCS features are rolled out and tested in Allo, and, as carriers update their systems to allow for SMS and RCS integration, Google updates Messages with Chat to take advantage of those systems. Still, neither Allo or Messages can fully compete with Apple’s iMessage and Facebook’s Messenger.
Google Play Music’s shift to YouTube Music mirrors the same issues I have with Tasks.
Google Play Music is much like Keep: it has great functionality, including playing my uploaded music, playing my on-device music (yes, I carry a huge library of FLAC files with me at all times), and compiling radio stations with new music based on songs, albums, and artists that I like.
YouTube Music loses the first two functions, and really is just a great radio station app. Heck, there isn’t even a great way of adding new artists to your favorites.
There doesn't need to be two apps: just add the new functionality of YouTube Music to Google Play Music and add the functionality of Tasks to Keep.
I think the rebranding to YouTube Music makes a lot of sense. It takes advantage of the name recognition of YouTube and rolls off the tongue better than Google Play Music ever will. However, there doesn’t need to be two apps. Rename the old app, add the new functionality of YouTube Music, and move on.
In the same way, add the functionality of Tasks to Keep and allow the already-known app to thrive. Google could even just rename Keep to Tasks and add the new functionality. Then we’d rejoice about added usefulness and great new names, instead of writing articles like this, lamenting how convoluted and confusing the whole thing is.
Coming full circle
A fun thing about being a Google user is feeling like you’re a part of the company’s growth. Apple decides what you will like and you can shove off if you don’t agree. Google lets people enroll in beta testing for its products to allow for feedback.
Is Chrome not new enough for you? Try Chrome Beta! Is Chrome Beta not new enough for you?! Try Canary! I run beta versions of Google Maps, the Google app, and Gboard on my Android phone, which also runs the beta version of Android P. I like feeling that I am part of the direction of the company, even if my feedback comments aren’t actually ever read by anyone (or anything).
Still, it’s bewildering to see so much time and energy wasted on fragmentation, redundancy, and failed branding. It makes figuring out which app I should be using for chat, email, music, or tasking just as bewildering. Google may be great at organizing the world’s information, but it still kinda sucks at organizing its own apps.