I recently read an announcement that Google was entering the seemingly crowded “cloud-drive” market, throwing its hat into the ring with competitors like Dropbox, Skydrive, SugarSync, Box.net, and a litany of others. If you are unfamiliar with these offerings, they are essentially a “hard drive in the sky” whereby you can map a special folder on a variety of devices to the service, and manipulate files on that drive with the changes instantly propagated to all your connected devices. I haven’t done an extensive investigation of all of them, but most have a similar feature set, and the key differentiator is application support and integration. I regularly use Dropbox, primarily because it is free, and a variety of applications on my iPhone support this particular service; in essence, it’s become the lowest common denominator of these types of services.

Google’s offering, Google Drive (not to be confused with their autonomous cars), seems technically similar, boasting better integration with Google’s other offerings and services. What interests me is not the nuances of the service, but that Google would enter what seems like an already saturated market. Every few weeks seems to bring an announcement of Google purportedly entering yet another seemingly disconnected market, or abandoning an offering announced a matter of months ago to great fanfare. Even stagnant markets are not safe, with Google trumpeting a home automation offering in the guise of Android@Home, which at this point remains stillborn. An outside observer might conclude that Google has little direction and a surfeit of cash as it lurches from search, to mapping, to mobile, to home audio players, to cloud file sharing.

Some of these offerings make sense in the context of Google’s dominant position in the search business. Searching the web and searching for the nearest pizza joint have obvious analogues and similar opportunities to sell search-based advertising. Areas like home audio and file-sharing seem a bit tangential, and Google’s strategy seems to be somewhere on the spectrum of shrewd innovation driver to easily distracted money waster.

Google as R&D powerhouse

The positive view of Google’s seemingly disconnected product strategy is that Google is leaving no stone unturned in its quest to capture the next hot market. Seemingly premature product announcements might serve as a public challenge to the developers, engineers, and product managers operating behind the scenes. Wheel out a Google bigwig to announce “the next big thing,” and the pressure is on to produce. Google might even be leveraging the press to its distinct advantage. The announcement of the original Nexus phone had a gushing technology press predicting that Google would “revolutionize” the entire mobile industry with millions in free press. Prematurely announcing products that are rapidly cancelled might be a quick way to gauge a market before investing the resources required to create a full-blown product offering.

For IT leaders, Google presents an enviable environment where no technology goes unnoticed, and seemingly limitless amounts of time and treasure are available to experiment with the latest technologies in the hope that you’re on the cutting edge of the next technical revolution.

Google as Microsoft 2.0

A more cynical view of Google might draw parallels with Microsoft. Microsoft was arguably the software company to beat and the company most in the IT industry looked to for the next big innovation. In its heyday, Microsoft pursued everything from speech and handwriting recognition to concepts well ahead of their time, like smart “virtual assistant” technology that never quite made it. Microsoft also inspired leagues of passionate fans and equally vocal detractors, an arousal of emotion around the company that now seems quaint.

Despite still being an industry powerhouse, most now look elsewhere for the cutting-edge IT innovations, and see Microsoft as an old-line company catering to staid corporate-types rather than cutting-edge techno hipsters. Google could be regarded as following in Microsoft’s footsteps. No longer the innovator, Google shows up to each new technology with a wad of cash and what might appear to be a strategy of “follow the shiny things” rather than shrewdly planned innovation. For several years, Google has turned its guns on the social media sphere, launching several iterations of products designed to combat Facebook, complete with Microsoft-esque media campaigns that try to make the company appear to be the innovator rather than the local Mafioso, coming to collect his piece of the action.

So what is it? Shrewd innovator or “throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks”?

Product development is a difficult game, clearly evidenced by the litany of companies whose fortunes have reversed more times than an election-year politician’s political stance. One striking difference I see with Google versus Microsoft is that Google seems more willing to aggressively cancel products. Microsoft aggressively took technologies 70% of the way there, often well ahead of their time, then let them languish until an upstart competitor took them the rest of the way and piqued Microsoft’s attention.

As outsiders we’ll probably never know if each new Google product is a carefully considered element in a master product plan with growth expectations, or underlying technologies that are part of a larger picture, or if anyone with a bright idea can get a cost center and six months. R&D is a critical element of any product company, but I get worried when the approach seems to border on the scattershot rather than naturally expanding on core competencies. In either case, the company that strives too much toward innovation and R&S is a rare breed, and most of us could benefit from incorporating a little bit of Google’s model, experimenting with a broad array of technologies, expecting many to fail, cancelling those that don’t meet expectations, and moving on.