Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The Elephant In The Room: Google Chromebooks And Customer Service

Posted by Tom Foremski - May 12, 2011

The Google Chromebooks look great. And Google is offering a monthly rental plan to businesses and educational institutes.

There's been lots written about the Chromebooks. Are they a Windows killer? Will people choose them over less expensive netbooks?

But I haven't seen much about how Google will sell and support the Chromebooks. Does it have a customer support organization in place? How will it deal with the inevitable customer support issues?

Google's last foray into hardware with its Nexus cell phone was a disaster primarily because it had no customer support in place. It said it would revolutionize the cell phone industry because people could buy it online.

That wasn't much of a revolution. And six months after it launched Nexus 1, Google said it would stop selling the phone.

Andy Rubin, who headed the Google Nexus project admitted late last year that Google had bitten off more than it could handle. He was speaking at the All Things D conference:

Rubin said Google's big problem with the Nexus One was one of scale. For each wireless operator it worked with, it had to do things like set people up with phone numbers, perform credit checks and more, he said. The process was time consuming, and given that there are more than 150 carriers worldwide, it seemed like a better idea to focus on things like building newer versions of Android, he said.

I saw some of the messages from customers on Google's boards howling with frustration because they couldn't get answers for some of their problems. There was no number to call.

And that's Google's culture: automate every process. From self-service ad buying to automated, editor-less selection of news stories, the answer every time is: use machines and software to deal with every service offering.

It's easy to see why Google takes this approach because machines and software are scalable. Demand rises? Plug in more servers and run more software.

People based solutions aren't scalable. Demand rises? You need more people, you have to recruit, manage, and put them somewhere. It's way more expensive than machines and software.

So how will Google deal with the sales and customer support issues? It'll put up a web page. It'll offer self-service options of various kinds. But it won't build a customer support organization because that's not part of its culture.

Apple understands the people component. It has a large customer service organization and a large retail network where you can interact with its "Genius" staff face-to-face and deal with problems. Despite the cost of hiring people, Apple is extremely profitable.

I give the Chromebooks a six month lifespan before Google decides it's too much trouble and hands it off to the manufacturers to deal with. As it did with its cell phone.

After all, what value does it bring beyond the Chrome OS and its suite of cloud applications? Why does it need to be in the hardware business? It's the same with cell phones, why did Google need to have its own cell phone when there's so many manufacturers that know how to run that business?

Has Google learned its lessons from its cell phone debacle? We'll see.


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