Google Buzz's first victim: Facebook

For all its success in turning mostly free Web-based services into lucrative rivers of cash, Google's been a miserable failure in the social networking space. While Facebook marched from a Harvard dorm room to a global army of 400 million users and Twitter became the short-form darling of politicians and celeb-utantes alike, Google threw one project after another at the wall (Orkut and Wave, anyone?) and hoped at least one of them would stick long enough to gain traction.

They never did. Orkut may be huge in Brazil and India, but it's virtually invisible everywhere else. Wave disappeared into the ether after its much-hyped public launch last September. Less ambitious steps toward creating a more social online experience (like baking Google Talk into the Gmail interface) similarly vanished from the tech culture radar almost as soon as they appeared.

Google's strategy with Buzz serves notice that it may have finally figured out a formula for integrating more social networking goodness into its already leading suite of Web services. Here's what Google got right with Buzz:

  • It isn't a solution in search of a problem. Wave was and is impressive, chock full of features that, when we first played with them with our friends and colleagues, gave us all more than a few "wow" moments. Wave was cool at first. But after the buzz (sorry) wore off, we all realized there was no corresponding consumer or business need to keep using it. Wave accounts everywhere have been gathering dust ever since.
  • It's relatively simple. Those cool features in Wave presented another problem for Google: They made absolutely no sense to the average end-user. While tech-savvy users happily explored the feature set, people with, to put it charitably, more mainstream technical capabilities just didn't get it, and stayed away as a result. Google Buzz is, for now at least, a much less ambitious product with a more restrained feature set and interface. But that's just fine. Because it's simply an extension to the familiar Gmail environment, it won't leave users scratching their heads.
  • It's connected. The online world has enough walled gardens. Most of us don't want or need to spend countless months building yet another social network to the point where it's even remotely useful. Google Buzz leverages existing connections in Facebook, Twitter, and other Google services to give new users an instant head start.
  • It's mobile. My experiment with Wave ended the moment I hit the road. Social networking tools need to work across every platform in the typical end user's life. Twitter and Facebook work as well as they do because you can easily do most of what you need to do no matter what device you're using. Mobile-enabled access also opens the door to geolocation-based services, which is shaping up as one of The Next Big Things in online advertising.

So now that Google seems to finally have gotten its act together on the social networking platform front, should Facebook be worried? I'd wager yes. Its vulnerability lies in the fact that it's never quite played nicely with others, its interface is maddeningly and unnecessarily difficult to use, and it's constantly reinventing itself -- and ticking off end-users and advertisers in the process -- as it attempts to become the sole platform within which its subscribers choose to work, play, and interact online.

Dominance isn't permanent

Carmi Levy Wide Angle Zoom (v.2)While Facebook fans may point to its 400 million-strong subscriber base as ample evidence that Google poses no threat, that figure can be misleading, as it's doubtless inflated by countless folks who have let their accounts lapse. Like MySpace before it, once the non-core users got tired of logging into a separate environment to connect with each other, they simply went back to whatever worked for them before.

Facebook also remains a closed-off environment compared to Google's more open landscape. While Apple's tightly controlled model seems to work well in the mobile space, it's a different ballgame in Web services, where Google's throw-the-doors-open approach has allowed it to build a broad and deep ecosystem that developers and businesses alike want to connect with. While Facebook's application platform seems, on the surface, to have been successful, Google generates far more cash from its apps, many of which actually change how we use the Web. Facebook's environment, on the other hand, remains choked with Farmville, Mafia Wars, and half a dozen apps that let users poke each other in new and fascinating ways.

Finally, Facebook's inability to keep its feet out of its mouth when it comes to security and privacy continues to give users a growing excuse to quietly try out, and transition to, new alternatives as they are introduced. While no company, including Google, can ever grow to market-dominating size without getting some egg on its face, Facebook has long fared worse than Google in this regard. Eventually, regular users notice and lose their connection with the service.

Google's ability to persevere and finally get it mostly right with Buzz stands in stark contrast to Facebook's propensity to periodically roll out disruptive changes to both its interface and its policy framework. While Facebook rearranges the deck chairs without actually improving the experience for anyone, Google methodically adds functionality to its key offerings and gives advertisers, developers and end-users alike ample reason to spend more time there.

Change begins slowly

Like most Google products, Buzz will remain a work in progress for quite some time. So while on a feature-for-feature basis it will likely lag Facebook for a while, it's likely good enough in its initial form to prompt some Facebook users to question why they're spending so much time over there.

Twitter also finds itself in a newly vulnerable position thanks to Google Buzz, but that's a whole other issue for a whole other column. For now, it's Facebook that needs to look inward and wonder if the model that worked so well when it was a category of one remains relevant now that the sleeping giant has finally woken up. Google's Buzz may finally challenge Facebook to decide what it wants to be when it grows up, or become another MySpace as it becomes yesterday's news.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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