Google launched its own social networking contender recently. While it is officially still in a closed „field test“, thousands of Google users are already on the platform, and among tech circles, Google+ is already the next big thing. That is surprising, considering Google’s relatively meager track record in the field. It has abandoned Jaiku, which was like Twitter. It has never tried to upgrade and spread Orkut, which used to be more popular than Facebook in countries like Brazil and India, it had to abandon Wave as a social collaboration tool, and Buzz never really took off as a social sharing mechanism. While many of Google’s services have a strong social component, it has been unable to intertwine them and turn them into a unified social platform. Enter Google+, which along with a visual interface refresh across the company’s services, tries to bring together existing ones, the recently launched +1 button, as well as ideas from Orkut, Diaspora and – Skype.
The platform is clearly over-hyped, and in a way too early stage to seriously judge its qualities and potentials. It will take many months until it enters a stage where it can reach Facebook’s usability in terms of features and fine tuning. However, I am already convinced that they managed to „kill“ Facebook and Skype with one strike, and possibly a few other competitors as well. Here is why….
Google has learned from its own mistakes and the mistakes of others. It enjoys the advantage of being able to launch a new product on the basis of a new kind of knowledge about social networking that has emerged in the last few years, and both have a fresh start as well as a head start because it does not have the baggage some of the competing networks have. It takes a more cautions privacy protection approach, both because it has made some own experiences and considering the massive backlash each time Facebook rips a new hole into users‘ rights to information self determination. It also integrated some interesting concepts that appeared on Orkut and Diaspora, as well as tendencies that emerged from Twitter and Facebook. All that is already in Google+, even though it is not even a finished product. In a way we are where Facebook was before it launched, but with all the experience and know-how of 2011.
While Google+ is currently a very feature-slim social networking platform that most people do not have access to yet, it already accomplishes most of the essentials in a very intuitive way. There is sharing (integrated in Buzz, Google Reader, and Google-wide content sharing/posting services), categorizing contacts into „Circles“ (think Diaspora’s aspects!) and the +1 button, which is a copy of Facebook’s like button, only Facebook does not have a globe-spanning search engine it can integrate it into. Yet here is the clue: Google+ already has a group chat functionality („Huddle“), and a group video chat functionality („Hangout“) built in and working without external programs. While Google’s chat/voice plugin for the browser is necessary, it can be said that they deliver a whole new social experience right out of the browser, with a high degree of platform-independence.
The best indication for my claim, that Facebook and Skype are under massive threat by these innovations, is the announcement by Facebook to integrate a Skype-powered videochat (currently only one-on-one). A social networking platform with Google’s reach, hype, philosophy and technical innovation is a serious threat to the Zuckerbergian view of privacy and Skype’s closed protocol and business practices. If Google+ matures, nobody will ever need Skype again (Google also offers phone calls, currently even free to the US), and most power users are sick of Facebook anyhow, not to mention consumer rights and data protection officials in such countries like Germany, which have declared Facebook a public enemy anyhow. Google’s mantra „do no evil“ (despite slips such as the WiFi scanning) and its clean interface, offer much less room for criticism. Google+ does a lot of things right in terms of privacy settings and usability, which if matured will give it a huge edge over Facebook.
For quite some time now Google voice and video chat has been an attractive alternative to Skype for Linux users as well, who feel treated like second-rate human beings by Skype’s lackluster support of the Linux platform and horrible communications policies. Now it was bought by Microsoft, which for many users means nothing good can come out of Skype anymore. As much as Facebook has been a social innovator and platform for economic growth and democracy, it is a closed ecosystem despite the many APIs (which let Apps pull all the information they want, with little control by users), and in the long term – that is my opinion – closed systems do not survive. Google+ is of course not more or less open than Facebook at this point, but Google’s nature is a more open one, and the data it collects about its users it wants to monetize by delivering tailored services and ads, not by selling the information to anyone from Zynga to the CIA.
The best indicator for Google+’s success will be how well users adapt to it, and how well they instantly make use of its configuration philosophies. Circles are not for everyone, and only a fracture of web users ever reads tutorials or bothers to fine tune their privacy settings. That could back-fire. A rapid adoption rate could indicate that especially the digital avantgarde, the social activists, the web’s „upper class“ will quickly migrate to G+, an observation that can in part already be made at the moment. Even if every owner of a Google email address or account starts using Google+ actively, it will not yet reach Facebook’s user base threshold, but the multiplicator effect in Google is much stronger. Consider Google Apps, too.
If Google manages to come up with a really fascinating way to allow business profiles on Google+, it will mean a quantum leap for online marketing, as those will automatically beat Facebook Pages in search rankings. If then it manages to come up with a good concept to allow Apps Accounts (all those @mydomain.com Email addresses that are powered by Google Services) onto Google+, the user base could quintuple within weeks.
Google+ is not another social network, it is a social network layer on top of an already very social array of services that are used by one of the biggest and most innovative companies on the web. It will not have to start from zero. Users are tired of restrictions and cumbersome bloat, they will flock to Google like they flocked to it from Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft or Mapquest. I am looking forward to how the rest of the year will play out, but I am convinced that in Facebook and Skype headquarters, executives are sweating blood and taking tranquilizers.
Disclaimer: I currently work for a Google-initiated/funded project. The views above are my own, not Google’s.