Monday, June 27, 2011

Google no longer cares about your health

After 1st January 2012 Google will no longer support its Google Health service and say it will be shut down. The company say that the service "didn't catch on" and that after 2012 no further data may be added. Those who have used the service are advised to retrieve the data from its system and move it to competing services before January 1, 2013.

Google Health was an opt-in service under which users could volunteer their own medical information, such as medications and allergies, to a web-based storage system for reference by medical professionals. It was especially useful to travellers who might wish to create an online storage of data which could be accessed anywhere.

Google said their original goal was to create a service that would give people access to their personal health and wellness information. "We wanted to translate our successful consumer-centered approach from other domains to healthcare and have a real impact on the day-to-day health experiences of millions of our users," they say in a blog post.

"Now, with a few years of experience, we've observed that Google Health is not having the broad impact that we hoped it would. There has been adoption among certain groups of users like tech-savvy patients and their caregivers, and more recently fitness and wellness enthusiasts. But we haven't found a way to translate that limited usage into widespread adoption in the daily health routines of millions of people. That's why we've made the difficult decision to discontinue the Google Health service." After January 1st, 2013 any data that remains in Google Health will be permanently deleted [Telegraph]. 

Ease of access

The service was a perfect way of storing records with ease of access around the world. When on international travel it was especially useful since one did not have to carry valuable documents on one's person. The service served as a reminder to prompt users to take booster shots for immunisations and to keep track of developing health situations. For carers and families it was particularly invaluable. During a worst case scenario, the data on Google Health could also be accessed by a person's GP in order to evaluate recent changes that might have occurred abroad.

Of course people could have used other services such as Microsoft's Health Vault. But like many others with a Google account, access to Google Health was far more practical given it was linked with everything else Google provides.

Limited use

Google's blog post says the take up was not as great as anticipated and that "it didn't catch on." Furthermore they say its limited use failed to give them enough data by which to broaden its use and appeal. For relatively healthy individuals its use would be limited, but it nonetheless provided a safe and reliable vault of secure health data.

It appears that the real decisive factor is that Google has failed to see a way of making Google Health financially viable. The fact that data on Google Health could not be used in the same way as GMail data to provide relevant advertising was seen as a pitfall by many on its launch. In fact it was likely that Google Health would never be able to make money unless it was charged for.

Cloud storage concerns

There are two major concerns that the shutting down of Google Health raises. Firstly it raises a moral issue that seems to fly in the face of Google's 'do no evil' policy. While one can understand that Google, like any company, cannot afford to run services at a loss, the running of Google Health is surely not a significant cost to a company as large as Google. In fact it might be better for public relations to keep the service running as a 'loss leader'.

More importantly perhaps is the uncertainty that the shutting down of the service raises. Many Google account users have vast quantities of data stored with the company. For a company that promotes cloud storage there is the concern over how safe and reliable that storage is. Though perhaps unlikely at present the shutting down of Google Calendar, Google Docs, Picasa and other cloud based storage would create untold problems for millions. Recently Google Video support was dropped, and it was only after protests that Google responded by providing a "migrate to YouTube" tool. YouTube is great, though Google Video allowed for the uploading of far longer videos.

It is not the first time Google has ended support for services or shut them down altogether. Before Google Video's closure was announced the company had said its much publicised Google Wave service would come to an end less than a year after its launch.

There are also examples where changes to products have been made which have resulted in poorer performance. After Googlepages was migrated to Google Sites the formatting on some people's websites changed. In addition the way one could edit and change the site became more complicated and omitted certain functions that were previously available.

Google has launched dozens of products over the years of which GMail is probably the most successful after its search engine. Users of Blogger, Calendar, Finance, Picasa Web, Analytics, Bookmarks, Checkout, Docs, Groups, Talk, YouTube, Books, and Sites might feel safe now but this week's decision by Google should raise some alarm bells as to how permanent and safe one's cloud storage is.

Not only is one at the mercy of hackers and online glitches that result in data loss, one is also at the mercy of companies, large and small who deem it prudent to delete your information. In 2009 Yahoo killed off GeoCities which closed after 15 years of offering people the ability to set up their own website. That data has been lost forever.

Last week it was announced that Google had signed an agreement with the British Library to digitise millions of books stored in its archive and make them available online [BBC / Telegraph]. But as such data is treated so arbitrarily when it does not become profitable it raises the question as to whether a hard copy in the form of a book is more permanent.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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