Why the end of Google Labs is a crying shame

We enjoyed our glimpse behind the curtain

Google closing the Labs doors

The news that Google is shutting down its Labs offering is, for me, a sad moment – although Larry Page's recent statements mean that it hardly comes as a surprise.

Although Google Labs projects were a veritable grab bag of offerings, some great but many odd or ill-formed, it represented a glimpse into the untamed land of innovation.

When Page suggested at the quarterly earnings that Google needed more wood behind fewer arrows, his decision on narrowing the search giant's focus was clear.

Fewer products and more development might, for instance, have stopped ill-judged forays into Google Buzz and Google Wave and combined the technologies earlier into the much better thought out Google+.

Testing public opinion

But, for many at Google, Labs represented a chance to test public opinion on their 20 per cent projects and see if they were worth pursuing.

A year ago TechRadar spoke to then-Google Labs project manager Aparna Chennapragada, who explained that the process was very helpful to engineers.

"A normal idea can take three years to get to the public, but with Labs we can get them out early, even if they are a little rough around the edges," said Chennapragada

"And by getting them out early we can start to get user input that can help to shape the product."

20 per cent

For the public that gave us a glimpse into Google's now renowned 20 per cent time, and what happens when you hand a bunch of very clever people time to pursue their own projects for one day a week.

"The 20 per cent products are not monitored," explained Chennapragada.

"It's nice to go away and see if an idea works, and actually the hit rate – even if it's one per cent of products – is pretty good.

"It's a nice experimental process that sometimes provides something concrete or sometimes something that becomes a main product if it proves it merits it."

Not many companies are willing to let the public peak behind the curtain, but recent times have shown that giving early access can be hugely beneficial, not only in user feedback but also in terms of the way the public perceives a project.

Perhaps the best example of that came with Windows 7, where a public beta offering from Microsoft became a massive public relations win as people got to see what the successor to the badly-received Windows Vista would bring.

The end of Labs will not end beta testing from Google or even the 20 per cent time, but it is an indication of a company that has often thrived in the limelight beginning to consider putting blinds up on their windows and keeping their offerings private until they are fully-formed and ready for public judging.

So, when Labs finally hangs up its white coat, TechRadar will be a little sad – because we often enjoyed seeing the mad, the bad but often the simply fascinating glimpses into what Google was up to.

You can check out our hands on video with Google+ below: