Saturday, June 25, 2011

What Happened to "Vertical-Itis?" The Quiet Finishes of Google Health and Google Power Meter

A few years back, everyone I heard a lot at conferences about "vertical search" and other ideas for the generic power of Web services like search engines to become more relevant to specific market sectors. Several years later, most of those cries have died out. It turns out that companies with a general focus are generally good at general things, and companies with a sector-specific focus do best with their own focus. That's not to say that technologies haven't broken down cross-sector barriers, but the likes of Google Health, Revolution Health and Google's Power Meter project wound up getting the mix of general capabilities and specific appeal all wrong.


Google Health was one of many efforts to try to capture people's medical information. Here we are, give your personal data to us, and we'll take care of it and help you to do good things with it. Well, that didn't work, even though it was a little better designed than Microsoft Health. It was a horse-before-the-cart concept. It looks great on a data flow diagram, but the personal value wasn't established to make those flows happen.

People don't give data for data's own sake - they give data to accomplish something that's personally valuable to them. For example, LinkedIn is the main repository for people's professional profiles because online because people know that they'll get something out of it - jobs and sales leads, market intelligence and so on. Hence, I'd probably never bother to store my blood pressure for its own sake, but when I am running and I am wearing a Bluetooth-enabled heart monitoring device, then it's relevant, easy and fun to give someone my health data. So today we have all sorts of health services that can collect this data, and services specific to the health industry that can make money with it. Ads for Google Health records was probably never going to be much of a winning concept, so concept-wise it would have been a stretch for their culture to make it work.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Google Power Meter was ahead of its time, a single-purpose, one-way data display service that enabled you to get information from your home's power meter. Well, not many power companies wound up deploying them - who wants to sell less electricity, after all - and let's face it, watching your power consumption is kind of a low-impact sport. In the meantime we have mobile apps that can both monitor and interact with our home appliances through new Web technologies, so a passive, purpose-specific approach to power monitoring is kind of outdated. Chop that one.

Did Google give up too easily on its Health initiative? Well, you can't say that they didn't give it enough time. But at the end of the day, with so much of our information going into and through Google already on a daily basis, getting stuck in the very sticky world of health information privacy was probably not the best thing for a company that's already in many people's anti-trust line of fire. Google is doing a good job of enabling health services and technologies indirectly via Android mobile appliances and the devices that attach to them and generate and consume Web data. This may yet define a second act for something like Google Health, but probably not any time soon. For those users and partners who feel burned by this failure, well, when you're on the cutting edge you're going to get some nicks sometimes. That's the deal. For those who are heavily invested in a new wave of health and energy-aware information services that are encouraging people to share information in new and productive ways, congratulations - it turns out that not everything in the world will be Googled.
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