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Farewell Google Labs - we'll be poorer without you

A fond adieu for Google's home of the weird and wonderful...

Google Labs might not have been responsible for driving huge profits at the search giant, but Google will be poorer without it, says silicon.com's Jo Best.

A moment's silence, please - the tech world has suffered something of a loss.

Google has announced it is putting an end to Google Labs, the test bed where users could play with and stress-test the ideas that Google's engineers had come up with. The winning inventions would then make their way into Google's products.

Google Labs started life in 2002 and has given life to Mountain View staples, including Google Maps, iGoogle and Google News, as well as more quirky goodies like Google Goggles.

In a blog post announcing the decision, SVP for research and systems infrastructure Bill Coughran wrote: "Last week we explained that we're prioritising our product efforts. As part of that process, we've decided to wind down Google Labs. While we've learned a huge amount by launching very early prototypes in Labs, we believe greater focus is crucial if we're to make the most of the extraordinary opportunities ahead."

Google Mars

Google Mars was one of the many brainchildren of Google LabsImage: Google

The decision to kill off Google Labs isn't a surprise. It's been a perennial complaint of the company that it creates so many fascinating projects, yet makes so few of them into viable commercial offerings.

While Google may be the search giant to end all search giants, it's long had an ambition to be the software giant to end all software giants.

Looking at Labs, it must have seemed to Google that the time had come to put away such childish things and start approaching its software development like the seasoned software veteran it aspires to be. Rather than host its erratic inventing in a fun if unstructured holding pen, Google's going to be streamlining its development, "experiment[ing] with new features in each of our products".

Once Google was a scrappy, made-in-a-garage internet upstart. It let its workers go off and spend 20 per cent of their time working on whatever Google-themed whims came into their head. It's not that company any more - it has thousands of employees, not hundreds. Structures must be put in place, Wall Street placated. Labs just didn't fit into the circles Google now moves in.

And yet.

I can't help feeling the tech world is a little sadder for not having Google Labs in it. Take a look at the user ratings of Google Labs offerings - very close to five out of five stars. Google Labs' users love their work. It's not often that software vendors can claim that.

Take a look, too, at the Google Labs homepage - you'll see it's fun.

Google Body

Google Body: Labs' voyage through inner spaceImage: Google

Look at Google Body, for example, a body-browser which Google describes thus: "Peel back anatomical layers, zoom in and navigate to parts that interest you. Click to identify anatomy, or search for muscles, organs, bones and more." Sure, it's not going to be the next Facebook - then again, neither is Google+ - but it's a great little app.

Without Labs, will we still see the same inspiring products brought to market? Or are we destined for a more buttoned-down Google? The company titled its blog post announcing the closure of Labs 'More wood behind fewer arrows'. This clichéd management jargon tells us everything we need to know.

Google is famous for its Don't Be Evil mantra, and for its failure to live up to that mantra. Google Labs gave Google another slogan to live by: Don't Be Boring. We can only hope it doesn't fail to live up to that too.

About

Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including silicon.com, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.

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