Ah, yes, it seems no “social IT” blog or media is complete without some comments of Google’s new social attempt. The latest of many: remember Buzz, or the (nice try) Open Social identity infrastructure, or the curiously forgotten previous full-fledged social networking initiative, Orkut. Just as Google forgot to champion it.
But let’s get on with the issue. IMHO, Google+ is interesting not just because it seems to stick together, but because it plays to Google strengths and tactics.
For the first part, let me rehash something I said last Friday while working on a case with my PDD colleages. Google’s business model is not search (where’s the money on that?), but selling advertising on content generated by third parties or simply selling the access to it. Be it books, your email, a web page, or an iPhone app… or a TV show, for that matter. To that end, it needs complete access to that content and superior search and semantic analysis capabilities, just as it needs to be available on the web and every other communication channel. It needs to hold a gateway it can charge you for crossing (or sell advertising on).
Google’s tactics have aimed to break any potential hold on that content. Microsoft tried to do that with Explorer, Office, and Bling (remember it did offer search before the rebranding). The first and the third threatened to leave Google out of direct searches. The second attempted to monopolise the handling of private documents (as we’ve seen, one of the contents Google wants to sell ads on). So Google funded Mozilla, created Chrome, and pushes both Google Docs and the OpenOffice suite. Windows had a potential lock on your local documents that competed with the Google Bar, so here’s Chrome OS. Apple had the same on smartphones, so (besides AdMob for selling ads) here’s Android. Network neutrality is key to its ability to exploit that content, so it fights for it.
Now, Facebook is building the largest, most fundamental piece of infrastructure in the social web: the identity management system. The system that helps define who you are, and in relation to whom, publicly known as Facebook Connect. It’s building it through technical cunning, marketing, network effects, and a disposition to deal indelicately with problems. The end result is that it is now close to achieving lock-in for user identity management. And the consequence is scary for anybody wanting to do business online (except maybe Microsoft, a partner and shareholder – and I wouldn’t be sure of that). They’ll have to pay.
Apple (who wants to hold to large parts of customer and user data) was burned when trying to use that system for Ping and is now trying to break the lock by using Twitter. Not bad, but Twitter’s not yet a proven business nor was built for the task. Google tried with Open Social, but got few takers and less traction. OpenID… is not a social solution.
Now, Google’s discovered a cleaner way. Most of the “digerati” of this world already have and operate at least a Google account, be it for Gmail, or for AdSense, or for Analytics, or for… So it’s gone and built a sensible contact and lifestream management experience (lots to say on that some other time, maybe in a Hangout) on top of its already huge store of people, and is starting to integrate its huge battery of services, from Picasa to search itself, to take advantage of each other. The Google+ experience in itself is still rough but getting good reviews from its early users… who are themselves mostly the “in-crowd” of online media and technology. It other words, the perfect seed group for a social network. The kind of people for whom “Facebook privacy” and “Microsoft security” are jokes, and who are spoiling for change.
But the key to Google’s game is, IMHO, that it’s not a “walled garden” nor a controlled community. Indeed it’s being opened as far and as wide as they can, so everyone can use it and integrate it. Google+ is about taking your “circles” and your networked experience everywhere on the web… or, if you’ll excuse my French, it’s about grabbing your digital identity and cutting it free from Facebook.
For Google, identity is not a merchadise, it’s just an enabler to sell access to content. Like Android or Chrome. For Facebook, it’s vital and a key to it’s valuation and business model. So we’re going to see fireworks.
And let me make a wild guess: “field trial” or not, this time, Google will bet the house on this.