Matt Stanford of Experts Exchange had an interesting post the other day that talked about Google’s latest foray into the world of “something someone else does that we think we can do better”: Google+. Besides being a name only slight less annoying than anything beginning with an e-hyphen or an i followed by a capitalized word, the question Mr Stanford asked was whether it was going to be a flop, or going to be the next part of the Internet world that Google conquers.
It’s been a few days now… and I’m going to go with “flop” (with a caveat first, since hedging bets is fair and since I do respect Andy Nacin, AKA PenguinMod). Not a sudden, obvious failure kind of flop a la WebVan or MySpace, though; more like a long, agonizing drift into irrelevance. Google doesn’t say “ooops, well, there’s a crappy product nobody is going to use” right away; it usually takes at least a couple of years of sitting around collecting seventeen hits a day before Google pulls the plug. This will be one of them. Here’s why:
The Caveat: Mr Nacin pointed out accurately that now all of the various Google functions — Docs, Picassa, Gmail, and on and on — are now in one place; that Google has had all this stuff all the time, and just had to wake up to the fact that they could put it all together. He sent the link to the XKCD cartoon, and that could be the most compelling reason to use Google+: it isn’t Facebook. Finally, he alludes to one sign of great companies: they adapt to changing circumstances. If one assumes that the world is moving away from Search and the crowdsourced results of what is worthwhile, toward a more familial, narrower band of “trusted” advisors, then Google’s ability to monetize (i.e. sell advertising) is probably in better shape than Facebook’s, since Google has been at it longer (and selling ads is definitely in its DNA).
Reason The First: I’ve written a lot about this, so I’m going to stick to my guns about it. “Social” is not in Google’s DNA. It’s not what they do, and because of that, anything they do that isn’t Search is going to be either a bad imitation or late to the party or both. Sure, Google is a lot more likely to be a lot more discreet about your personal data than Facebook is, but that won’t matter; Linux is a lot more secure than Microsoft, and Windows still dominates the desktop and laptop market anyway. We live in a self-centered world; being social isn’t about what your friends are doing, but rather about what you tell your friends you’re doing. Google knows Search — better than anyone else anywhere. Because of that, the only people who have nearly as much influence on web development is the World Wide Web Consortium — and you can bet that Google offers its opinions on anything the W3C does. Google wants to get its hand wet on some of that ad money that’s now going to Facebook, so they’re trying to steal some users — but it ain’t gonna work. No matter what Google does, it’s going to look like “Me, too.”
(Yes, you can ask “what about GMail? Google didn’t screw that up.” And you’re right — they didn’t. But they also weren’t trying to do something as sophisticated as Facebook is, and their competition was Yahoo. That alone almost guarantees success, but Facebook’s people know exactly what they’re trying to do, something that no one has ever said about Yahoo.)
Reason The Second: Three of my brothers are in what is euphemistically called the “gaming industry.” Two of them spend their workdays (and probably a few long nights) worrying about the technical part of gaming: the machines (one sells them, the other analyzes their productivity). Because of that, I’m less interested in putting money into machines than I am in seeing what the gaming companies have done to make old games new. The next time you’re in a casino, pay attention. The game you used to play all the time two years ago probably isn’t there any more; if it is, it’s in a corner or there are maybe 1/10th as many of the machines as there were then. The truth is that the game itself is still there; it’s just been repackaged with new lights, wheels, images and sounds, but you still have to put $2.50 into a penny game to win the progressive, and getting five of the right symbol in a row happens about once every six or seven months. Why? It can be summed up in two words: “new” and “shiny”.
Google+ is anything but. It’s new to Google, but it isn’t anything that others haven’t tried before. Circles? That’s what email clients make contact groups for. Hangouts? Video chats are nice, but it’s a lot of bandwidth for Joe User, and in reality, it’s nothing new. It certainly isn’t shiny enough that it’s going to draw 200 million people away from Facebook, because Facebook has been working on this stuff an eternity longer than Google has, and it’s the only thing Facebook does.
Reason The Third: The Microsoft syndrome. We have all seen hints and allegations that Microsoft is slowly but surely falling by the wayside as a technology leader. That’s not a surprise; there really hasn’t been much in the way of innovation out of Redmond for a long time. What new products they have developed have been responses to what other people are doing — not something that breaks new ground. And they’re very late to the mobile game; both Apple, Google and even RIM have pretty much relegated Microsoft to second-tier, if only because the future isn’t in desktops and laptops. Sorry, MS — but you should have realized that when the Internet became available everywhere, the trend was going to be for machines that best took advantage of it.
Google+ is the same thing. The time to come up with a really good “Social” service was four years ago, when Mark Zuckerberg (among others) realized that NewsCorp was not in the “Social” business — it was in the news business — and that because of NewsCorp’s purchase of MySpace, an obviously clunky system that wasn’t turning out anything new to keep the customers’ attention, there was an opening that could be filled. Google missed the opportunity, and three years later, it’s trying to play catch-up. The only problem: even Mr Zuckerberg knows he has to keep churning out things to keep people occupied, or someone else will.
One more symptom of the Microsoft syndrome: by last Friday, the first signs of a spam campaign in Google+ had appeared. If feature-creep starts setting in, this reason gets doubled and redoubled.
The bottom line: it’s not enough to — were I someone who used Facebook a lot — make me switch; I’m not sure it’s enough to make me use it a lot. Yes, Google has done a decent job of putting things together, but it has some significant roadblocks to overcome (user habit, the antitrust authorities in the US and EU, being blocked in China) before it is as ubiquitous as Facebook. Mr Nacin says that he’s fine if Facebook keeps the larger share of its users; “Skim off the top, please,” he wrote. “I’ll be waiting over here to add them to my circles.” I appreciate the sentiment, but invites from people I don’t know and being spammed in less than two hours tells me that he’ll be NOT adding a lot more people than he’ll be adding.
That’s a flop.