Google is winding up its Labs (H/T The Atlantic Technology section), the part of the company that dreamed up, experimented and tested its new products. Now, my read of the announcement does not suggest an abandonment of speculative innovation, but a focusing of that effort to existing product lines. But it does indicate the loss of a significant strength of the company – a space for tinkering and fine-tuning that can take place prior to formal launch. Bad products fade away and/or are learned from in developing others. In a field where such beta testing is almost customary, Google was nearly alone in the modern landscape of private sector research.
Two points come to mind in reviewing the announcement and what Google Labs has meant to the company. Unless product-oriented Labs are going to be as adaptable to failure as Google Labs has been (the most notable Google failure – Buzz – did not run through the gauntlet of the Labs), future Google misfires seem likely to be more public in the future.
The other thought is prompted by Yahoo! Labs attempt to paint itself as the next Bell Labs, something I was skeptical of at the time, and remain so. While that effort is still in the preliminary stages, the withdrawal of a proven success from the stage sets a lousy example for future efforts at private-sector sponsored innovation (especially for large companies).