Given Google’s vast engineering driven culture, it seems obvious why they keep having a tough time putting out well crafted iOS apps. I think it’s too easy to chalk it up to the cliché’d expression of, “engineers are an anti-social bunch who are more functionality driven, rather than design driven.” Sure, that may be a factor for a not insignificant portion of engineers, but that doesn’t mean all of them are like that.
I’ll concede that Google has always had a problem with design. Until only very recently, one need only look at a few of their products as prime examples: Google search, Google Reader, Google Analytics, Google Adsense and Gmail. Earlier this year, someone or perhaps a small group of people, decided to champion the cause for pushing good design.
Pushing redesigns of Google’s major web properties is going to take time, and of course iteration. We’ve seen some major new work done to Gmail recently, and of course prior to that Google+. Many user interaction, user experience and design nerds love to pick apart and chastise many of the choices Google makes with their designs, and rightfully so in many ways.
It’s clear that Google sees the benefit, or better yet, the need to push great design into their products. Most of their products after all, are reaching out to the average consumer–not enterprise user (even though they are serving that market to some degree). So why is it that they keep on failing miserably with their foray into mobile apps for iOS? Is it lack of talent? Bad management? Or even lack of care?
Let’s look at their latest iOS app, Gmail. Gmail was approved by Apple and pushed out to the App Store earlier this week, but was quickly pulled after it had some glaring bugs with regards to push notifications. Push notifications were the least of their problems though, and that’s not just the way I see it, but how many people see it as well. I had not had a chance to download the Gmail app in time before it was pulled by Google, however my Twitter stream was flooded with developers, pixel pushing designers and even regular all around geeks with how the app was not a truenative experience. Instead of releasing a fully native iOS app, Google opted for cop-out–that is, a simple UIWebView with a few native controls wrapped around that. I’m no developer, but I know enough about this stuff to say this is completely the wrong approach for any iOS app. At least, if you want an insanely great user experience for the people who will ultimately end up using it.
So the real question is, why can’t Google simply put more time and care into developing a fully native, and polished iOS app? My hypothesis is that from Google’s perspective, putting out a Gmail iOS app is simply a means to an end. There’s absolutely zero incentive for them to put the development resources into creating an awesome app on a platform they don’t control, nor receive any money on. We all know Google would never charge for an iOS app, because their goal is simply to garner as many users and eyeballs as possible with their services. Paid advertising is a huge deal to Google, and is still the core of their business model. The more people that use free services like Gmail, or even search, means greater opportunity like click-throughs on paid advertisements–to which Google gets a cut of the profits. I won’t argue with anyone on this, however I posit that the main driving factor why they keep putting out mediocre iOS apps, is that they just don’t care enough about iOS users.
If we look at the latest version of Android as an example, you can just look at their native Gmail app and see how much better an experience it is than any mobile webview you would get through a browser. It’s incumbent upon Google to care about a platform that makes them money–in this case their own–Android.
You can’t argue that Google doesn’t have the financial power to invest in developing great native iOS apps. I’ll also posit that one can’t ignore the vast amount of talent they have amassed over the past several years. Google has what it takes to make really awesome, highly polished apps if they want to. I think Google is becoming cognizant of this now, and we’re only just now starting to see the very tip of the iceberg as far their initial attempts at good design. It will be interesting to see if Google can get to the point where they are substantially improving the quality of their products. I think Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) is probably their first major attempt at this. With the direction their going now, like it or not, one can only hope future offerings only get monumentally better from here.