Saturday, August 30, 2008


I have been volunteered for an exciting new study that Google is running: how quickly can they turn off their most dedicated users?

So far it seems to be pretty effective. Since 2005 I've been a happy user of iGoogle, Google's take on the ubiquitous web portal. It had a few things going for it that I liked: a good variety of different modules available, skinnable themes (I started out with a cityscape, then switched to one by a New Yorker artist, before landing on Radiohead's), and snappy responsiveness. It was also very easy to customize, though I rarely needed to tweak what was on it, and unlike other portals at the time, it had absolutely no advertising.

My first clue that anything was wrong came last week when I started getting chat messages in iGoogle. I was nonplussed at first. I hadn't been expecting to chat, and actually had to get some work done... iGoogle just happens to be the first window to show when I open my browser. I made apologies and signed off, making a mental note to come back and figure out what the heck was happening.

Essentially, it seemed like my page had been vandalized. There was this big ugly yellow and white strip along the left side, listing what modules I had already installed (?) and inviting me to sign back in to chat. It got worse, though. I was no longer able to pop open individual email messages in a new tab. I could no longer press on those nifty "+" signs to read the first paragraph of a story. Instead, Google now wanted me to click on a module, then patiently wait for a few seconds while my browser screen turned white and the content slowly loaded in that screen, obscuring everything else. This would happen even if there wasn't enough content to fill the window.

After playing around with it for a bit, I decided that enough was enough and I was ready to have my old iGoogle back again. No such luck! It turns out that Google is rolling this experiment out to some users, and once you get tapped, there's no way to un-volunteer. And I'm far from alone in my frustration - check out this awesome thread of more than 500 people responding to the experiment. What stuns me is that this dates back to early July, and the very first victims - er, I mean subjects - have exactly the same complaints as me. Which means that Google has been doing two very non-Google things: 1. Refused to make things better, and 2. Continued rolling out an inferior product. Maybe they're hoping that eventually it will reach people who really like it? I dunno.

I can't put ALL the blame on Google. I did sign up for their experimental labs program, and have enjoyed some of those changes. It makes sense that I have to take the bad with the good. But it utterly perplexes me that they aren't letting people opt out of this. It seems likely to (in some miniscule way) hurt the company - a lot of the people who sign up with these programs are early adopters, and Google risks turning them off in a big way. Not, I hasten, by making a sub-par product, but by being so peculiarly unresponsive and inflexible about it. (The only way I could get rid of this would be to create a new Google account, but then I would need to sign out and switch accounts any time I wanted to check my mail - blech.)

As a result, for the first time in my life, I'm moving from a Google product back to a Yahoo one. Lord knows I've made plenty of moves in the other direction - back in the day I had Yahoo email, used Yahoo maps, checked Yahoo weather, etc. After an absence of about three years, I'm now moving from iGoogle back to My Yahoo. I must say, it has gotten much better in my absence. They've adopted the RSS-centric module orientation of iGoogle, and even have a GMail item available. Granted, they don't have the cool artists series of iGoogle, but there are some nice customizable options available, and the overall look is clean and friendly. After using it for a few days, I'm ready to switch my Firefox home page on all 4 of my computers.

That said, since I'm making a change anyways I'm willing to look elsewhere. If anyone out there has an awesome portal that they really like, please let me know what it is and why you dig it. It feels a bit sad to be leaving the Google garden, but since I'm moving out, I want to move into the best place possible.

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