If It Fails, Google Stadia May Be Destined for a Fate Worse Than Death

The gaming platform may fade into obscurity, like so many other Google products

Before Google’s Stadia even launched earlier this month, worries that the company would eventually get bored of the gaming platform and simply cancel it were so widespread that even developers working on games for the service found themselves weighing in. But if Stadia doesn’t turn out to be the hit Google hopes it could be, the way the company has abandoned products in the past suggests a fate worse than cancellation. Google may just stop investing in Stadia, forcing it to languish in obscurity.

Google has certainly earned some ire for outright killing services people use. Arguably starting with Google Reader’s untimely demise, the company has never shied away from ending services that are redundant or unpopular. Inbox served as a testing ground for features that were (mostly) harvested for Gmail, and Google killed it when it was no longer useful. Allo, yet another attempt at messaging, was shut down when it became clear that almost no one used it.

But Google takes a different approach with some of its services that are popular or that users pay significant amounts of money to use. Instead of killing them, Google keeps them alive but rarely updates them. They rot on the vine, rather than being pruned away.

Google’s approach to music is a prime example. In 2011, the company launched what would eventually be called Google Play Music. It allowed you to upload your own songs to a cloud-based music locker — an innovative feature at the time — as well as pay for a Spotify-like subscription to access millions of other songs. The most notable thing Google did with it was buy Songza and, two years later, integrate the startup’s machine learning–driven smart playlists into the product. Developing Google Play Music wasn’t Google’s top priority, but users had massive libraries uploaded and spent years paying for their subscriptions and buying songs and albums.

Then Google decided it was time for a change.

In May 2018, the company announced YouTube Music, a subscription that would allow you to listen to music through a new YouTube app. It would also leverage YouTube’s accidental dominance as a music-streaming service, with many users pulling up videos of beloved songs or albums and sorting them into playlists. Perhaps Google didn’t intend for YouTube to become the de facto music video service on the internet, but according to a 2017 study, the site accounted for more music streaming than Spotify, Apple Music, and all other music services combined. Turning the platform into a Spotify competitor would seem like a logical, if long overdue choice.

Google keeps some services alive but rarely updates them. They rot on the vine, rather than being pruned away.

But what does this new direction mean for users who have been on Google Play Music for years? Will their service be killed off like so many others? Statements from Google indicate that the company plans to go in an Inbox-style direction. YouTube Music will eventually get all of Play Music’s best features, at which point Play Music will be discontinued. So, yes, the service will be killed off, but hopefully users won’t care too much, since they’ll be migrated to the new, better version.

But it’s more than a year since Google made those statements, and there hasn’t been much movement toward this goal. The company has added minor features to YouTube Music, like the ability to sort albums by name and a home screen widget. More crucial features like the ability to upload your own songs or transfer playlists from Play Music have yet to make an appearance. Google says these features will arrive before Play Music is retired, but there’s no indication of when that will happen or if Google will change its mind before then.

This is no mere niche issue. According to a report in Bloomberg from May, more than 15 million people subscribe to one of the company’s two music services. That’s far fewer than Spotify or Apple Music have (100 million and 60 million, respectively), but it’s more than twice the number of Pandora subscribers. It’s not clear how those 15 million are split between Play Music and YouTube Music, but they all pay money for their service and likely have a library of music they don’t want to lose, and thus all have a vested interest in Google’s continued music strategy.

Music isn’t the only tertiary service to experience the feast-or-famine of Google’s interest. For years, Google Voice, the service that let you manage multiple phone numbers from a single number and text from your computer, among other features, languished in obscurity until the company deigned to revamp it in 2017. Google combined Android Pay and Google Wallet — two other internally competing services that saw only casual development — into Google Pay, a service that still struggles to reach the feature set of Apple Pay.

This all spells a potentially ominous fate for Stadia. Its launch has been marred by missing features and a lack of support for games. These problems are fixable, but only if Google devotes the resources to developing Stadia that its competitors are willing to invest. Microsoft and Sony are developing their own game-streaming services, and both have the pressure of their substantial gaming businesses to drive them forward.

Of course, Google has some motivation to invest heavily in Stadia. Video competitors like Twitch and Mixer are pulling away some audiences in the video-streaming space, and Stadia could lure gamers back with unique features they can’t get on other platforms. But if it doesn’t pan out that way, Google could be stuck with a game-streaming platform with millions of users the company has lost interest in. At best, Stadia could end up being a minor player in a market with millions of users who are stuck waiting endlessly for the update that will finally make it good. At worst, it could stifle smaller competitors from the market before they have a chance to offer a better product.

Google may have earned its reputation for killing products, but leaving projects alive without investing the time and resources they need may be the worse practice.

All Rights Reserved for Eric Ravenscraft

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