Chaos by design is a Fortune cover story on Google, covering the company's fast-paced, seemingly disorganized approach to products and exploring if it can come up with a "second act" to please investors:
There's nothing to suggest that its growth engine -- ad-supported search -- is in trouble. But it's clear from Google's tentative lurches into new forms of advertising and its spaghetti method of product development (toss against wall, see if sticks) that the company is searching for ways to grow beyond that well-run core.
What vexed Galaxy is precisely Google's challenge today. For all its new products -- depending on how you count, Google has released at least 83 full-fledged and test-stage products -- none has altered the Web landscape the way Google.com did. Additions like the photo site Picasa, Google Finance, and Google Blog Search belie Google's ardent claim that it doesn't do me-too products. Often new services lack a stunningly obvious feature.
Much-hyped projects like the comparison-shopping site Froogle (nearly four years in beta and counting) and Google's video-sharing site have been far less popular than the competition. One of Google's biggest misses is its social-networking site, Orkut, which is a hit only in Brazil and -- as Marissa Mayer, Google's 31-year-old vice president of search products and user experience, says with an impressively straight face -- is "very strong in Iran."
In case you've missed it, the entire Google-needs-a-hit-like-web-search theme/meme has been strong this year. I tend to view those expectations as unrealistic. I agree, it's been some time since Google's come out with an "oh wow" product similar to Gmail or Google Maps, where people get very buzzed about it being so different or new or unique. But then again, I haven't exactly been "oh wowed" that much by stuff out of Yahoo or Microsoft or Ask, either.
For me, personally, Yahoo's Flickr has become a category killer in photo sharing. I use it all the time. But it wasn't home grown. Yahoo Answers is more of a homegrown wow -- perhaps not so much with me, but with others certainly.
Microsoft's Windows Live Local rocks for how anyone can create custom collections, and the new image search interface is wonderful. Both get wows or "cools" out of me.
Ask has been doing great stuff with its maps and smart answers -- the earthquake smart answer like you see here is the latest and something I totally would have gone to Ask for last month during a small Bay Area quake I felt.
Still, Google's got plenty of good stuff as well. I don't know that any of these players are going to roll out a major "second act" that blows away everything before. Instead, it's more likely we're going to see a steady growth of products, with all of them having some gains and plenty of products that simply won't catch on.