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Google has introduced Gmail Labs, a digital playground for Googlers to develop new features for Gmail in their spare time. It's a well-staged PR event, a timely effort to remind the press — and through them, potential hires — that Google lets engineers spend 20 percent of their time on side projects. Gmail Labs, though, is a sign of how 20 percent time as early Googlers knew it is vanishing from the Googleplex.

What we hear from Googlers is that supervisors are cracking down on use of 20 percent time when employees' main projects are behind schedule. A sensible management move, but against the spirit of 20 percent time, which was meant to liberate creative employees from meddling middle management.

As well, Googlers are finding it harder to get their side projects approved. A mess of side projects — Google This, Google That, Google Whatever — launched and then ignored by users, led Google to tighten up the criteria for what Googlers can work on.

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The end result: Ideas like Gmail Labs. Googlers can innovate, but only in tiny sandboxes; on core products, not on big new ideas. Only Larry and Sergey, and their favored minions, get to dream big dreams about overturning the telecom industry or revolutionizing the world's energy infrastructure, or whatever the founders' power-mad geek fantasies are this week.

Which means Google is increasingly just another company. And 20 percent time? A dressed-up version of the office suggestion box.

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