With Google’s recent decision to ax unlimited storage across several of their services, users have not been responding well. Instead of welcoming new features like Google Photos’ doodle collages that are rolling out now, many people on Twitter have used the company’s original tweet as a place to ask for more important and necessary features on the service or to share their distaste with their recent decisions. For example, one user asks them to provide manual face tagging, while another asks to stop being prompted by the app’s AI/ML recommendations that they fix the lighting on their photos where they intentionally made a stylistic choice.
One person actually states that they’re leaving Google altogether because of their decision to stop providing free unlimited photo storage. These sentiments are actually quite common and have become almost daily occurrences across the social sphere. Google is changing, people are upset and I get that. While I don’t think Google is evil like many suggest, I do think they’re having an identity crisis and that they have some things to figure out.
A little perspective
I believe that Google provided free storage for as long as they could before they could no longer. I think it’s important to understand that these individual Google service teams are doing everything in their power to create something that changes lives for the better and they’re adding features that they themselves would love to see or use in order to enjoy life more fully. The ones putting out tweets regarding fun or interesting features like this are not the same people making upper-level decisions that so many disagree with. For better or worse, Google is a company that’s segmented off into various teams and projects. It may seem like they’re being tone-deaf by providing new features, but they’re not – it’s just business as usual for that department.
It’s understandable that so many people are upset by Google’s recent decisions. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t voice our opinions or that we should just shut up and enjoy these new features while ignoring the elephant in the room, but we should be mindful of the channels we use to do so. The feedback button or a civil discourse with a Googler would probably be more effective than replying to a feature tweet. I’ll talk more about that later because, while it’s not really effective, I can’t blame people for trying.
Google’s Identity Crisis
On the flip side of the coin, I get it – I’m a Google user just like you are. The decision to lure millions of people in with free unlimited storage only to remove the feature a few years later feels a bit dirty. They never promised that it would remain free, but they probably could have thought ahead and seen that this was an issue they would eventually have to address and thus, could have made this clear to users earlier on. With the success of Google Search and Gmail, I would say it was obvious from the onset that Photos was going to take off. Either way, what Google giveth, Google taketh away, right? but it’s important to understand why this is happening. According to an excellent article by Fast Company, Google’s switch from being a search-first company and therefore away from being primarily ad-revenue driven may be a key factor in their recent decisions.
Google’s shift away from an ad-centric model isn’t entirely new. While advertising made up nearly 90% of the company’s revenues in 2015, that share has since fallen to 83.9% last year and 80.6% over the first nine months of 2020. Non-advertising revenue comes from the apps and media people buy from the Google Play Store, sales of devices such as Pixel phones and Nest speakers, subscriptions to services such as YouTube TV, and Google’s enterprise business, which includes cloud computing services and business-class productivity tools.
Still, there are signs that Google may be accelerating those non-advertising efforts, with subscription revenue as the focal point.
Having made sweeping changes across the board to reflect this, regular or free Google account users aren’t the only ones to feel the burn either. Workspace users no longer get unlimited storage since the service’s rebranding and the cost of Youtube TV continues to rise. I actually have as many paid Google services as free ones nowadays, or at least, it feels like I do. Across Google One and Drive, Google Photos, Workspace, Youtube Premium, Youtube TV, (takes a breath) Google Fi, Play Pass, Stadia, and a load of other ones I’m probably forgetting, the company’s future looks to be as much about subscription revenue as it is about advertising.
Don’t freak out just yet
While that may anger many, myself included, it feels almost inevitable. They keep getting slammed with anti-trust lawsuits and with increasing concerns over their data collection efforts, Google listed their dependence on advertising as the biggest risk factor in their latest SEC filing. With all of that being said, it’s likely that we will continue to see more Google services receive paid features in the near future.
Yes, you heard that right – we may only be seeing the beginning of it. The golden age of “free Google” is probably coming to an end depending on who you are, but it’s not all that surprising. The way I see it, while it’s a good thing that they are continually pressed for answers on how they are utilizing customer data and that many users are becoming increasingly privacy-minded, it means that the effects of that trickle down as money from our pockets.
Many of Google’s free services will likely continue to be free in some capacity though. Core features probably aren’t going to be locked behind a paywall any time soon, if at all. Those who are looking for more premium experiences are the ones who will end up paying. I seriously doubt that there will be a day when Google places Search behind a Google One subscription, but should that day come, we’ll have much larger issues to discuss, won’t we? Many will probably say that this is the beginning of such a thing coming to pass, but we should also keep in mind that while Google is a for-profit company, they’re not going to make a move that big and controversial.
A Slippery Slope?
Little changes like those made to Photos and Drive could indeed be seen as a slippery slope, but I believe there are enough checks and balances, especially in the form of users like you and me, that there will be a boundary that can not be crossed. After all, if no one uses Google services, they can’t profit, right? So, their biggest threat would be that people abandon them in response to their decisions. I’ve got to believe that Google will maintain a very particular dialogue and relationship with their users to respect moral and ethical boundaries in regards to freedom of information and privacy so that they can keep them in their ecosystem.
The worst that could happen is that we’ll end up having to pick and choose the services we wish to pay for and then use the free version of the rest. I’ll actually be more interested in seeing how Google’s future decisions and affect Android One users in third world countries. For you, your money goes where you find it works the best for you, so if that means it’s in several Google services, then so be it. With all of the subscriptions I have nowadays, specifically inside of Google’s ecosystem though, it can eventually feel like death by a thousand cuts, so I’ll have to put my foot down at some point and so will you. I believe that at some point in time, they will experience diminishing returns if they provide too many subscriptions, but there are enough users that they should get plenty of sign-ups on anything they offer.
Where do we draw the line?
With that being said, I think we should all keep in mind that privacy and convenience will always be in direct opposition to one another. At some point, you’ve got to decide where you’re willing to draw the line. Since the dawn of time, people have helped one another in exchange for things and I believe it’s a necessity in life, so avoiding Google services altogether is the wrong answer. Holding them accountable at a higher level while enjoying the conveniences they provide is the best way to approach the situation, but we have to keep in mind that they are a for-profit company. You’re either paying with your wallet or you’re paying with your data, but the fact that users are now paying with both is why they’re rightfully upset.
Either way, it’s not like Google is an evil supervillain standing behind a curtain as we watch its silhouette throw its head back and cackle, though they definitely get personified as such all too often. They’re regular people looking to make a profit and to provide a service. The company’s DNA is made up of individuals who are looking to do the right thing. They may not always make the best decisions, but these decisions aren’t easy to make and I’m sure they can’t please everyone all the time.
I’m not defending them though, after removing “don’t be evil” from their EULA and given their past decisions to support military efforts with their technology, I think that they have some explaining to do if they want to retain the loyalty of their users. As the company shifts its identity from a search-first and ad-revenue driven business model to an AI and machine learning first one that’s trying to thrive in an age of ramping privacy concerns, they have a lot of things to figure out. Not only are people uneasy about artificial intelligence to begin with, but also Google’s lack of communication with their users – it gives the wrong impression.
A Few Suggestions
How can they continue to provide their services in a way that seems fair, competitive, and honest? How do they implement paid features in a way that doesn’t confuse users who wish to only use free features? How can they make sure people feel heard and understood? Because of the recent backlash, it’s clear that they can do a better job at all of these things. One suggestion includes sending an email reply to users who submit their thoughts using the feedback buttons found across each service. If they sent so much as a canned reply for things that they decide to implement based on a user’s suggestion, then perhaps fewer people would spam their feature tweets with their frustrations. They could even provide Google Store Credit or something for your efforts to improve the company. Instead, you submit feedback and you never hear back – ever.
Another suggestion is that Google stop trying to impose the ad-revenue driven model on paying customers. If you’re going to shift away from ad-centric business and instead go the subscription route, then I shouldn’t still have ads – even recorded ads – in my Youtube TV experience, for example. With all of that extra money, maybe they could work something out with content networks to create a transformative and forward-thinking experience that shifts the technological landscape – you know, change the world and all that. Paid services should not have ads. Period. I don’t care how you do it, but figure it out.
Lastly, if you’re a paying member, you should have more controls around preventing Google from collecting data on you within that service. As I said before, you’re either paying with your cash or you’re paying with your identity – it shouldn’t be both. Because it currently is, many people feel as though Google is double-dipping. Being that your Google Account is single-sign-on and completely unified across services, this would be quite the mess to untangle.
At the end of the day, Google needs to continue to listen to user feedback and implement the loudest voices in the room if it makes sense to do so instead of appearing tone-deaf. I won’t pretend to understand all that goes into the decisions they make, but I will say that they seem questionable at times. In any case, they may not always get it right, but I can see that they’re trying. They just need more unity within the walls of the company and across departments. I think that all anyone wants from them is clearer communication and constant course correction and in exchange, I think we can all be a little more understanding.