Edgelings

When Good Companies Make Bad Products

By David Strom

What do Zimbra, Knol and MobileMe have in common? All three have come out in the past month, all from companies that have loyal customers and solid revenues, and all three are dogs. Yahoo, Google, and Apple should know better: don’t push something out the door before it is baked. I’ve tried them all, and while I haven’t spent tons of time to review them, I have seen enough to know that none of them are ready for real customers.

Zimbra is Yahoo’s answer to a desktop email client, like Thunderbird, Microsoft Outlook, or something similar. It allows you to combine a variety of Web-based emailers like Yahoo Mail, Gmail, and AOL (remember them? I know, there are still a few people in my life that insist on using AOL, try to be kind to them and not sneer) into one unified inbox. The trouble is, it is a product that would have been innovative say back in 1997 or 1998. But today? Nope. Gmail does a terrific job organizing my email, and can collect emails from other systems, too.

Yahoo’s email software has always been a day late and a dollar short, sorry guys. Icahn doesn’t love you for your email – indeed, if he ever did use a computer, that would probably be the last email product he would pick up. It is clunky, the user interface (both the classic one and the current one) are used in classes on bad design principles, and when you have to manage multiple accounts it bogs down like quicksand. Into this environment we have a solution: let’s develop a client emailer! Well, at least give them points for diversity training: it comes in Mac, Windows, and Linux flavors. But a dressed up pig still stinks.

I also don’t want to go back to a desktop email client for several reasons: First, because I use several computers during the course of my average day, and when I am on the road I don’t want to have to bring my laptop and fight through the TSA screening lines and cart it up and down concourses and escalators ad infinitum. Second, because I have forgotten how to set up POP and IMAP mail servers and don’t want to have to dig out my book (which I wrote with Marshall Rose back in 1998) to remember how to do it. Finally, I don’t want to have to backup my desktop email archive: having it sorted out by Google’s Gmail means I don’t have to deal with this chore. Scratch Zimbra.

MobileMe is Apple’s latest incarnation to its .Mac service. Its failures have been well documented, and it has been amusing to watch Apple stumble on this one. Again, give them some points for having both a Windows and Mac versions, but they didn’t quite get it right: the Windows version doesn’t run on Internet Explorer. Hunh? What reality distortion field were you living in, Steve baby? I mean, what do you expect all those Windows users to do, move over to Safari or Firefox just to run your nifty software? I even said Apple’s choice of nomenclature was prophetic: remember Windows Me, the version that lasted all of a few months before Microsoft realized what a dog it was? MobileMe is the Apple version for the rest of us.

And now we have Google’s attempt at creating another Wikipedia with Knol. Isn’t one Wiki-tiki-web site enough for our universe? And I mean the good folks over there all due respect. I like Wikipedia, it is responsible for endless hours of amusement and resolving pivotal factual arguments in my life. Granted, Knol has some nifty name verification features, so that you can at least have some clue who is writing all that free content and whether you want to trust them when you have to cut and paste it into your next term paper. But I couldn’t verify my name using either with a credit card or phone number, probably because I have just moved and the addresses aren’t on file. Oh well.

But more importantly, why oh why would Google get into the content creation business just to piss off every one of their advertising partners? It doesn’t make any AdSense. Some have already claimed that Google IS in the content business already, we just haven’t been paying attention. I will leave that argument for another day.

Knol, MobileMe, and Zimbra are all cases of bad products coming from otherwise good companies. Notice I didn’t draw any parallels to any number of past Microsoft products, like Bob, Vista, DOS 4, or even MSN for that matter. Remember those?

If you have your favorite bad-product-from-good-company story, please share.