Sustainability Is A Feature

A little while ago, my friend Michael Sippey, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing the other day, sent me a link to the new Google Voice Local Search.
Now, this new services seems like a good product, and I know I’m supposed to say “Wow, cool! Nice work, Google!” But because I work with Michael, we are often each other’s toughest critics — we want the stuff we do to not suck, and try to structure as much of our work as possible in a way that prevents the sucking. So my initial response wasn’t positive. My gut feeling was “Why the hell aren’t they charging for this? That sucks!”
Here’s the thing — I don’t care about whether Google makes money on 411 services or not. They’re going to do billions of dollars worth of AdWords sales regardless, and even if this new service becomes a huge hit, the revenues would just be a drop in the bucket. Certainly not enough to affect the overall direction of the company.
But having paying customers (or the equivalent — something to indicate users were invested) would help focus the product team. This is Google, which means you’ve got enormous resources behind you if you’re launching a product, both financially and intellectually. If your product “may not be available at all times and may not work for all users” (as it says on the product’s homepage), then either fix it or get yelled at by angry users. Either one is a good option. Don’t hide behind a “well, shucks, we said it was beta, and it’s free…” excuse. Being accountable to your users makes your product better.
What’s worse is the uncritical evaluations of new technologies. I don’t care if an individual product or feature seems cool if it’s just going to go away in a few months when the company folds. See The starting line is not the finish line:

I am, frankly, tired of reading reviews of new technology that omit the commitment of the team, that don’t mention how the success of the product almost feels like life-or-death to the people making it, or ones that ignore the people who make the damn thing happen.

If we aspire to making meaningful technology (and if you don’t, then please, just quit now), then it’s irresponsible to let users become connected to, and perhaps even emotionally invested in, a tool that isn’t going to be around for the long haul. If nothing else, it’s a waste of someone’s precious time to use a small company’s tool that’s evaporates because a big company found it trivial to clone, or because a big company decided it was too hard to charge what a product was worth. I don’t believe AdWords will subsidize Voice Local Search indefinitely any more than I believed Windows 95 would subsidize MSN Sidewalk indefinitely, even though that was a fantastic online local guide product as well.
And connecting people via VOIP or sending them an SMS, two of the key features of the new service, cost money. At Google volumes, they cost a lot of money. I want to have a service I can rely on — which again means I need to invest in it. I understand that the idea here is for this product team to use a beta test as a starting point to make the service more reliable, but the sad reality is that a line has been crossed where there’s no sense of urgency or expectation that those actual launch days ever arrive.
Google’s made the leap here before, by starting to charge for Google Apps. Even people who use the service for free were reassured by the fact there was a paid version. So there is still the opportunity to be brave enough again to assert that a product is worth paying for, even paying a premium for. Millions of iPod users are willing to listen to the argument.
This, I think, is the crux of the problem that David Galbraith highlighted on his site. David’s is one of my few must-read blogs; I don’t always share his tone of righteous indignation, but I love that a person who’s often so reserved in person can be so passionate online. David mentions that new efforts by Google or Yahoo (see Google My Maps vs. Plazes, or Yahoo Alpha vs. Rollyo) can kneecap some Web 2.0 startups en passant, and posits that this is the death knell for Web 2.0. Leaving aside whether that’s oversimplifying the efforts of those startups, it’s an attractive argument just for the sheer audacity of his phrasing.
But that sort of reckoning is not the death of Web 2.0, that’s it’s promise. It’s very possible to build a successful business and thrive while competing with Google and Yahoo, even in an established market. (Oh hey, that’s my day job.) What’s not possible is to make a business without adding significant value to the platforms provided by existing companies. This is, roughly, exactly what distinguishes current successful business models from Web 1.0.
Or, put more succinctly, I like paying for Flickr Pro. Like us at Six Apart, the Flickr team was lucky enough to start working on their company, and on Game Neverending, back before there really was AdSense to run on your site, and when virtually the only small startup charging money for a consumer web service was Oddpost. I’d argue those sorts of innovations are as important as all the Ajax work that either of those companies ever did, even though I admire and respect both teams tremendously.
This refrain never goes away, but it bears repeating. Those of us who love technology and believe in its potential owe it to our communities, our audiences, and our customers to make our efforts sustainable and accountable. I’m not an unabashed, uncritical capitalist, but I do recognize that one of the most positive effects that a classic charge-a-fair-market-value-for-your-goods business model offers is the opportunity to create an accountable and sustainable relationship with a customer.
I pay for a lot of products because it gives me the potential opportunity (though I almost never use it) to yell at someone when it breaks. I pay for a lot of other services because I want to make sure they don’t go away, or they’re not forced to make ugly choices about privacy or ethics in order to keep the lights on. And I am glad to use services or sites that are ad-supported when it’s made explicit that the advertising is supporting a useful good or service.
If you believe in what you’re doing, in technology or anything else in your life, make a commitment that it’s here to stay. Do what it takes to prove it. Do what it takes to sustain it. And if it’s the kind of service that you think is okay to just give up on, or that you don’t want to bother to figure out a way to keep running, then why are you doing it in the first place?