July 20, 2011 | by Andrew Kameka
The Android Market is home to plenty of apps, but a few of the best Android apps you know and love today actually got their start in Google Labs, a proving ground that is being shut down.
Research SVP Bill Coughran announced via the Google Blog that the company would shut down Labs in order to put more wood behind fewer arrows. For those of you who don’t speak metaphor, Google is going to focus its resources on fewer projects in order to make those endeavors stronger and grow faster.
Google’s plan of action is to end all Lab experiments and concentrate on making existing products better. This does not mean that innovation will stop because Googlers will still have time for pet projects and the company will continue to develop new products. However, the Labs program will shut down. “Many of the Labs products that are Android apps today will continue to be available on Android Market,” according to Coughran, and some technology will be incorporated into other products, so don’t worry about losing out.
I can understand why Google would take this course of action. More than a few people have asked why Google has similar products in competition with each other, namely Pool Party and Photovine both having their own photo-sharing services rather than work with Google+ or Picasa.
Regardless of whether you think that’s right or wrong, let’s take a quick look back at some of the Android apps that have emerged from Google Labs, and see how they’ll survive.
1. App Inventor
This was the most interesting Lab product in my opinion. Designed to give people a chance to create very basic apps and get an elementary understanding of Android app creation, it originally made me think the Market would be flooded with crap apps. It lives today as just another way to mess around with Android. Play with it for yourself.
2. Finance for Android
Back in March 2009, Google decided to remind us all how much the recession was kicking our economic butts with an app that could track stocks, portfolios, and news stories. The app has continued to do that ever since, and now offers real-time quotes for U.S. markets, but hasn’t improved much . I’d like to see this project get some more attention since it’s been stagnant for so long, and some international market support wouldn’t hurt either. [Market app]
3. Gesture Search
In March 2010, Google came up with a way to quickly scroll through contacts by gesturing with an “N” and jumping to the names with an “N” in them. It was available as an app and never integrated into the default contacts app, so I soon lost interest. To be honest, I doubt people really care if this is supported or not, despite the 4.5 rating in the Android Market. A lack of updates makes me think Google doesn’t care much either. [Market app]
4. Google Goggles
Google Goggles was hard to say and even harder to dislike in December 2009. Everyone loved the ability to take a picture of a book, CD, or image and instantly perform a web search on that product, place, or thing. Everyone except me, who thought it was very slow and inaccurate. But I’ve since grown to love Goggles for its ability to scan barcodes, identify wallpapers, and even translate text. I’m fairly confident this is one Labs product that will continue to flourish and get lots of support. [Market]
5. Google Listen
Google Listen arrived in August 2009 as yet another podcast app. What made it special was that users could manage their feeds online and sync, stream, or download episodes. Search was terrible and the controls never got a pretty makeover, but Listen is still a highly popular app thanks to its simplicity and online connection to Google Reader. My money is on this surviving, but I could also see Google eventually using the technology in the Music app or building its own iTunes-like podcast directory into the Android Market. [Market]
8. My Tracks
My Tracks remains one of Google’s most useful apps long after its February 2009 debut. If you’ve ever gone cycling, hiking, running, or walking outdoors and wanted a tracking app to plot your course, there’s a good chance you did it with MyTracks. The app continues to be incredibly popular in the Android Market despite some third party applications that are just as good (if not better). I doubt we’ll see many new things come to MyTracks, but it will get bug fixes and maintenance updates. [Market]
6. Open Spot
Open Spot seemed like it would be useful when it launched in July 2010. The app helped people in the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands discover open parking spaces, saving them time and gas money by not having to drive all over the place looking for a spot. However, I hardly hear anyone talk much about this and it has received only 10,000 – 50,000 downloads in the Market, which is low for a Google app. Don’t be surprised if this guest gobbled up by the local team and becomes a Layer in the Google Maps app. [Market]
Of all the Labs features, Places is the one I think has progressed the most and is likely to get the most support. Though it started as just a points of interest directory in May 2009, it has since grown to become a location finder that integrates deeply with Google services and has check-ins and offers to motivate people to use this over similar apps. This has already achieved big time status at Google and will continue to grow.
I wondered why Shopper wasn’t just incorporated into Google Goggles when the app debuted in February 2010. Both were about scanning images or barcodes and performing search. But when you look at the recent changes to Shopper, with its Deals and comprehensive product search features, you can understand why Google choose to separate the app. Obviously this app will continue to get development and lots of changes in the future. [Market]
10. Sky Map
Sky Map was one of the killer apps I used to bring up when mentioning why someone should get an Android phone. I was even into astronomy, but the thought that you could put your phone up to the sky and get information about constellations based on your position in the world blew my mind. Sky Map launched in May 2009 and hasn’t been updated since December 2010, so its probably not going to get much attention. But given its cool factor and the fact that you don’t really need to add anything new to, I’m guessing we can at least count on some maintenance releases. [Market]