by Kirk Douglas
I want to love Google. I sincerely do. But sometimes Google is a company that surprises me with products I just don’t see the use in.
The company is undoubtedly among the best prepared, most skilled and most reliable when it comes to making cross-platform apps of decent quality on my platform of choice, iOS.
To be specific, the Gmail app (though limited in some ways compared to the web) is quite good and offers a lot of options that simply aren’t there in the iOS standard “mail.app”. YouTube is constantly improving with recent changes in the last year to navigation that have been generally well received. The new YouTube Red subscription option also includes in its pricing full access to Google Play Music. Google Photos works reliably as a secondary backup for anyone wanting free photo storage aside from local backup or iCloud options and Maps is still my go-to for directions. In short, Google has managed to keep its core products fairly robust and reliable while edging in slightly with newer offerings that don’t necessarily detract from what they are good at. Not everything has been a success however. Google+, a failed attempt to best Facebook, seems to have all but deteriorated in recent history.
And then, out of nowhere less than two weeks ago, a questionable release left me puzzled about the company and the direction they are going with social offerings once again. With little fanfare, and just two days before their Google I/O conference, the company released Google Spaces across the web, iOS and Android.
The app borrows heavily from a number of other online social services. First, it encourages pinning articles and web content, photos and comments into areas called Spaces. Users can create a space, name it and customize its colors and attributes such as background image. Further, within that space you can add content (similar to how you might pin things on Pinterest), taking note of news articles you like, websites or products from around the web. this also includes the ability to post photos and GIFs, link to YouTube videos and share to other people and network platforms like Facebook.
The general idea is that you create a “space” for your topic of choice, your group of friends or content that you’d prefer to keep track of. For example, you might be involved in your local church and create a bunch of content specific to a select group of friends you’ll share with. Or, maybe you write on the side and prefer to share some inspiring quotes in a space that you’ll share publicly with your friends on Facebook.
None of these features sound bad. You can write, drop in photos, videos, GIF’s, News stories, web clips and other content. You might even consider Spaces to replace a ‘read it later’ service like Pocket or Instapaper.
The part that becomes puzzling is when you look deeper at it’s presentation. Upon opening the app and signing into Google, I didn’t find the app to be intuitive by any stretch of the word. The interface is so utterly plain and simple in its aesthetic that it felt drab to me by way of comparison to any other platform. This was most certainly a design choice to keep user content front and center considering that the app’s content is user-driven rather than presented in a public feed; I just didn’t find it attractive or engaging as a result. It’s emptiness does nothing to prompt any particular action or make sense of what’s on screen.
After watching a couple of videos – One from Google introducing the product, and one walk through from a fellow YouTube user, it was a bit clearer how the product works. But the fundamentals – the part I immediately hoped to have guidance on, I simply didn’t. And it just didn’t make sense how to get around and more importantly, what the apps actual purpose is.
I want to be clear that upon further review and discovery, I have acknowledged the potential strengths of this app and I now better understand its possible utility as a communications tool or group project organizer. With that in mind, I still cannot help but feel like Google’s vision for this product is, well — predictable. Spaces feels like a mashup of Pinterest and Google+ with a dash of Google Keep, a sprinkle of Pocket and a throwback acknowledgement that maybe Yahoo Groups was really onto something all those years ago. No single idea is bad, they are just boring in the sense that we have seen them before and putting them all together doesn’t necessarily make any one aspect shine.
I actually tried to use the app for a few days in a row but found that my own usage habits were getting in the way. I simply forgot about the promise of everything in one place — or space. The things I wanted to share went straight to Facebook. Pics to Instagram and saved articles to Pocket.
Similar to the way Google often kills off lesser-known or lesser-used products, they equally surprise with new products that sometimes feel like they will end up in that very same category right from the start. This, at least for me, feels very much like one of those products.
Spaces had me feeling lost in the very spaces it had prompted me to create. The app, much like its logo, has a dull throwback quality that made it feel dated to me in some way that I still can’t quite put my finger on. I was uncertain of its usefulness throughout and unwilling to break old habits in favor of starting new ones and coaxing my friends on board. The built-in Chrome browser and YouTube integration was nice but not fluid enough to get me to do all of my web and video searches in the spaces app rather than Safari or YouTube.
I won’t dismiss Google’s latest social app efforts for good just yet, but I’d love for them to convince me why spaces exists and call attention to what makes it special. Until then, Spaces for me, is simply taking up unnecessary space.