Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Do you remember the Mercury Topaz?

Do you remember the Mercury Topaz? Yeah, I didn't think so--and I don't blame you.

Well, for you young'uns out there, it was one of Ford's mid-size cars back in the day. It was the "upscale" (if you can call a piece of crap upscale) version of the Ford Tempo. What about the Mercury Zephyr? Ford Contour (Detour?)? Mercury Mystique (Mistake?)? Ford Fusion?

You see what's going on here, right? Ford couldn't get it right, so they kept changing the name of the car, coming out with new crappy designs (although the Fusion does seem decent). I should add that I actually like the way the Contour drove, it was just built like shit.

Point is, Ford couldn't get it right. People saw that, and many of those cars mentioned above got bad reputations. So Ford had to start over. Multiple times.

Brand management, needing to do all the stuff I mentioned above, is just another way of saying that you didn't do a good job making a solid product. If the product is solid, then the brand management doesn't matter, not nearly as much anyway. That's my opinion.

I am reminded of all of the above with recent developments at Google. Remember Orkut? Google Wave? Google Buzz? Google Plus? Okay, I HOPE you know Google Plus! But Google has had a number of high profile flops in the "social" arena.

On one hand, I'm glad that we keep trying. But on the other hand, I don't see how we're going to gain traction unless we develop a good product and stick to it.

Google Plus is a very solid product. Seriously, functionally it is better than Facebook in allowing one to segregate different circles of friends, which is important to me. But trying to enforce a "real names" policy was a misstep in my opinion.

If that were the only misstep, the only major change of course, that's one thing. But what about other recent developments? Remember Google Market (for your Android phone)? Gone. It's now Google Play, and Play Music and Play Books and who knows what else.

I'm willing to concede that this might be a good idea. Maybe this is a good strategy. I have no idea. But it is frustrating to see the constant changes in direction.

For the record, I am not involved at all in any of the above products and have absolutely zero inside knowledge of them.

While I'm on my soap box...

That's not the only thing that Google does that reminds me of poor business practices from the auto industry. I remember that Ford used to give very attractive one-year leases to all managers at a certain level or above. It was funny/sad to hear them talk about their cars. None of them had the first idea of what it meant to keep a car for any length of time. They would talk about how nice the cars were, how well-built. Not only that, they had maintenance plans to take care of the routine stuff. They never had to deal with a service writer at a dealership lying to them about all the other stuff that needed to be done on their car. Basically, Ford ended up with a system to prevent their upper management from seeing how people really experienced their products. When I used to live in the Detroit area, back in 2002-2003 (I think, it's been a while!), I used to call it Fantasy Land. I always thought that Ford would have been better off flat-out giving cars to managers--but then mandating that they keep the car for 10 years. Truly experience the car the way a customer would.

Furthermore, they would point to J.D. Power surveys of "initial quality" as proof that they were getting better. As if initial quality had anything to do with how the car held up over 5, 10, or 15 years. As I always said, there is a list published every day telling you how your cars hold up over time, what people really think about them. Published in the newspaper, called "classified ads" (yes, kids, that's how we used to do it). It's one thing to tout a bullshit survey. It's quite another thing to see what people are willing to spend their hard-earned money on when they buy a car they need to rely on. By the way, for you young'uns out there, classified ads in newspapers (remember those?) is what we had to do back in the day, before eBay and Craigslist!

Okay, that was a long tangent.

The thing that frustrates me about Google is that they give employees the fanciest new devices every year. Similar to Ford, Google employees don't see the phones from the same viewpoint as the customers. Customers don't often buy the pure Google Nexus devices (the bare bones Android software, without the poor customizations and bloatware that carriers love to add). And whenever new features are shown off, they are shown off on the latest, fanciest new devices. Even if such new features can barely run on a 2-year-old phone.

Now, this is not as bad as the automotive industry for three reasons. First of all, the typical lifespan of a phone is much shorter than that of a car. Secondly, having a test bed of pure Google phones (the only version of the software that Google controls directly) is tremendously valuable for testing and developing the software. New versions get pushed to Googlers first, and there is a lot of useful internal feedback when this happens. Only when the software is fully baked is it released into the wild. Thirdly, Google employees can get "external" versions of Android phones as a company-issued work phone.

Nevertheless, it frustrates me when Google touts new features that don't have a chance of running on old phones, or on phones with crappy carrier builds of the Android firmware. Just a pet peeve, I guess, that reminds me of the worst practices of the automotive industry.