Google Bait And Switch?

Last Updated Jul 7, 2009 4:12 PM EDT

Google has taken the "beta" label off many of its products, particularly those aimed at enterprise customers. Those products include productivity tools (Google Apps), calendar, email and chat. In addition, Google has made improvements that should help IT administrators transition from licensed software from Microsoft and IBM to Google's apps.

But Google has done more than shed the "beta" tag that it recognizes makes enterprise folks uncomfortable because they equate it, as Google enterprise products manager Matt Glotzbach noted in his blog, as being "not being yet ready for prime time." Google has also made it a lot harder for customers to find the "standard" edition of Google Apps, which is free (compared to the $50 per user per year fee for the Enterprise edition). In fact, Google had inadvertently taken the link to the free edition off its landing page, but even in apologizing for the omission, has admitted that it's trying to make that version hard to find.

Earlier, I pinged Forrester analyst Ray Wang to ask for his take on my earlier post on software vendors using free offerings to market their premium products (hence the term, "Freemium") and he sent me a message on Twitter saying
Free makes sense. Customers should at least know when and how they trigger payment. Google apps was bait and switch - BAD
I have to agree with Ray, even if Google isn't actually pulling a bait and switch -- free is still an option. But the way they switched is troubling -- and as opaque as the reason they give for dropping the beta tag. Glotzbach makes it sound like Google's definition of beta is different than everyone else's, so they'll drop the nomenclature while continuing to consider it beta internally.
"Beta" will be removed from the product logos today, but we'll continue to innovate and improve upon the applications whether or not there's a small "beta" beneath the logo.
In other words, they're condescending to our neurotic need for certainty. Yes, yes, it's golden, it's fine, it's perfect -- even though we grownups know it isn't. Funny thing is, in reality all software is perpetually in beta -- even Microsoft issues improved versions of its products from time to time. But beta has a real meaning -- it means that code isn't stable. Once a product is out of beta, it's in version 1.0. It's pretty standard stuff, and Google engineers know it too. So why muck around with the definition of beta, as Glotzbach does?

It's the Freemium concept taken to its extreme: it's free while it's in beta -- and we define beta -- and once it comes out of beta, you'll have to pay. Of course, Microsoft has made customers pay to use beta versions of its software (most recently Vista, which comes out of beta with Windows 7), so I suppose it's par for the course. But Microsoft is in that enviable "no one ever got fired for buying" position IBM used to occupy, while Google is still very much the challenger in enterprise. Google gets a mulligan on this one, but customers will be wary of further attempts to transform "Freemium" into bait-and-switch.
  • Michael Hickins

    Michael Hickins has written about technology and business for BNET, InformationWeek, InternetNews.com, eWEEK -- where he was executive editor from 2007-2008 -- The Curator, Pseudo.com, Multex Investor, Reuters, and Conde Nast's WWD.com. Hickins is the author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, a collection of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. He also published Blomqvist, a picaresque novel set in 11th century Europe, in 2006. Hickins remains passionately interested in the intersections of business, technology, politics and culture, and endures a life-long obsession with baseball. He is married with two children and lives in Manhattan.

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