Did Google Miss the Next Big Thing by Chasing Social Media?

Facebook announced a new messaging platform today that combines all of your communications into one inbox and uses your social graph to prioritize and validate inbound messages. Email, IM, SMS and social messages in one place. It’s a unified approach to communication and focuses on the relationship between people, rather than between messages as its foundation. And I can’t help but wonder, Why didn’t Google do this first? And, did Google’s obsession with “catching” Facebook and Twitter leave a blind spot to this new way to bring efficiencies to digital communication?

In retrospect, Google was better positioned to unify communication types than Facebook. With Google Voice, Gmail, Wave, SMS-enabled GChat, YouTube and Docs, it had all the components in place and ready to go. Voice, Docs and Wave aren’t even available on the Facebook platform as viable options and Gmail is much more mature than Facebook messaging. But instead of tying these various forms of communication together they were busy chasing down the social grail; fumbling the Buzz launch, botching Wave and trying to court Twitter and roll out real time search.

Now don’t get me wrong, real time search is indeed important, and a big business to be in; but the bolted-on Buzz failed, Wave failed, Google Friend Connect didn’t take hold, and before those, Jaiku and Dodgeball died in-house too. And now, their nebulous new Google Me effort looks foolish compared to the innovation coming out of Facebook. In this mad quest to catch Facebook they’ve overlooked key strategic advantages that they’ve now fumbled to their biggest competitor.

When you’re focused on organizing the world’s information, it’s a pretty big miss to let your sworn enemy get to organizing our digital communications first.

The severity of this blow will take a bit of time to play out as more people become accustomed to getting their texts, IMs and email all in one place. And not just any place, but the place they spend more than 5 hours a month online (that’s 2.5x longer than users spend on Google properties, btw.) But once people realize the “cognitive load” savings realized by this centralization Google will start losing Gmail users and growth will slow.

Think about it, is there any reason to leave Facebook once messaging gets integrated? And with the orientation around individuals and not subject lines, communications will become easier to manage. Why would I go to GMail, then to docs, then to my phone, then to Chat when I can have it all in one place? (note: a Hacker News commentor astutely pointed out that these things _are_ in the same place on Google. ¬†What I was referring to here, and rushed too quickly to articulate is that if I’m already spending 5.5 hours per month on Facebook looking at photos, commenting, liking things, etc. Why, once the functionality was available within the interface and on my mobile device, would I jump out of my default environment to use a series of other tools that don’t integrate at all w/my preferred online service. I hope this clarifies this a bit.)

Now, emails from my mom about traveling to see me for the holidays will be in the same place as her text messages about being delayed and where to pick her up. I’ll have flight info in the email with the real time info from her text message all in one place. Plus, with Facebook phone book I can call her from that same interface.

This is a powerful new way of handling communication. Or is it? Some early analysis likens Facebook to the old AOL, opining that Facebook too, will suffer the vagaries of time and evolution of the Web.

And while this may seem reminiscent of AOL in the days when many regular users considered AOL the Internet, I think we’re looking at something fundamentally different for a few reasons. The first has to do with scale. The sheer number of connections on Facebook make it a far more sustainable platform than AOL ever was. At it’s largest, AOL had 30 million members – that’s less than a tenth of the Facebook population. Second is APIs. The connected nature and ubiquity of the Facebook Connect and Like integrations (not to mention automatic personalization) have woven Facebook throughout a large portion of the Web. And third, the time. We, as a population are more digitally savvy than ever before. My parents have cell phones, my grandparents have cell phones. My 4 year old son texts my mother. We’re connected in a way that we never were in the AOL days – all playing into the hands of Facebook.

We’ve also heard the early rumblings of the privacy issues this new platform brings into question. And the privacy debate is an important one; but one that will happen at the fringes. There will be plenty of handwringing by pundits about what Zuck will do with our SMS and email data; but it’s an argument that won’t resonate with your casual user, even if it should. Let’s face it, the moment we accepted Gmail as our email client we gave up that inbox privacy ghost. This is just another step, and one that won’t raise the flags of rebellion among the proletariat.

So what’s next for Google? They’re now in the position where they have to play catch up again. Nothing they ship for Google Me will put them ahead of the game. They were sitting on a massive opportunity and missed it. While they’re out building self-driving cars, Facebook is building the true OS of the Web. And while privacy advocates and open Internet advocates will cry foul, the denziens of the Web will enjoy the cozy confines of their Facebook home and appreciate their newfound ability to have a single point communication interface that lets them manage all their relationships on the Web. And all of it will be hidden from Google.

As more and more of the world’s information gets organized by Facebook, the venerable search giant will need to stop chasing and start looking more at what opportunities their strengths provide if they want to be more than just the yellow pages of the Web.

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16 thoughts on “Did Google Miss the Next Big Thing by Chasing Social Media?

  1. Joe says:

    I really doubt it. There are good reasons to keep your SMS, Email and IM messaging separate. This isn’t a problem regular people have as was witnessed by the global yawn response to Google Wave which was essentially trying to do exactly the same thing. So, Google didn’t miss it, they tried and failed. I don’t think FB is going to have any more luck than Google did with this.

    • Morgan Brown says:

      Thanks for the comment Joe. I agree with you that there are good reasons to keep them separate, but to the average Facebook user I think they aren’t that compelling. If I think about the people I text and email personally (excluding business communication) the idea of having that all in one place is enticing. Having my girlfriend’s chats, texts and social messages in one place makes keeping track of everything much easier.

      I think the problem with Google Wave is that it was scary, it was too complicated, built by engineers for use in their engineering environment. I think Facebook messages will be different than Wave because they will be simpler than shuffling between inboxes. It won’t be more complex to the typical user, it will be more intuitive.

      I think of my mom. She’s going to be so excited when she gets my texts and emails in one place, which happens to be the place she looks at pictures of her grandson. She’s lamented to me about whether to text or email, how does she know what to do, etc. I think this makes that a lot easier on the non-power user set.

      Of course, we’ll see. The one advantage I give to Facebook over Google is that the people are there. 4 billion messages sent on Facebook every day. People are using a terrible inbox experience and sending mail. And the top 3 subjects are: none, hi and yo. This new way of organizing and making it easier for people already there seems like a better shot than Wave ever was.

      • The thing is: what are people using Facebook for? Business? Nah… Fun, wasting time, chatting with friends, sharing pictures of their cats, growing virtual vegetables – everything but “business”.

        Email is still one of the primary way of communicating for doing business and I don’t think this tool (which I haven’t used yet since I don’t have an invite, BTW) will “kill” it: very few of my business partners are my friends on Facebook and if I really wanted to use something “closed” I’d use Linkedin or a more business-oriented social network.

        I used Wave as a collaborative tool – and it worked, for what I needed. Is this thing going to be used in a collaborative environment? I doubt it as it looks like it’s missing some key features (version control, collaborative editing and sharing of “documents”).

        In the end, it looks like it’s just a new design for the (until now very very ugly to say the least) messaging platform on Facebook. Could it be that this time is FB that’s (vainly) going after BigG?

      • Morgan Brown says:

        Silvio, great points. I intentionally left out the business use case, because this is where Facebook doesn’t make any sense. So Google and their apps/email will continue to be important competitors in the enterprise space; but it’s their inability to adjust to the changing consumer behavior (which includes wasting time on social networks) that is surprising to me and driven in part by their chasing after the shiny object of the social network world.

        I also don’t believe that anything is going to be killed here; I just think that the use is going to shift more towards Facebook.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Spot on. Google have missed a trick here by failing to make any sort of success of Wave. Think about it; if they’d launched Wave as a realtime component to GMail (so you could take an email thread to a Wave if participants were online, and vice versa) they’d have a very similar product to FB. Throw in Voice and a little SMS integration, collaboration on documents etc and you’d have a very powerful comms tool. By launching Wave as a separate product Google failed to realise that users don’t want multiple comms platforms, what they want is better comms platforms and an integrated GMail/Wave hybrid would have given them that.

  3. aha says:

    yeah. facebook users – exhibitionists spending tremendous amounts of highly unproductive time online. what a user base. now they’ll have a facebook inbox. so what?

  4. Salomon says:

    Facebook is not trustworthy, neither from a technical nor from a juristic point of view.

    I’ve developed for Facebook, I know their code base. I’ve read Facebook’s horrific Terms & Conditions.

    In short: All your data belongs to them and they host that data on a platform that is full of security holes and privacy issues.

    Mind who you trust.

    • Morgan Brown says:

      Great points indeed. I think caveat emptor is always important, I am simply suggesting that the majority of the user base doesn’t care now and won’t care later. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Aaron Curtis says:

    I’m not hearing anything in these Facebook messaging reviews about filters / rules for automatically organizing this stuff. This is the same problem I have with stuffing everything into my event stream on FB. FB’s not organizing the information–they’re prioritizing the stream. Even with FB groups, we still end up with a stream rather than organized data. There’s no tagging / filtering, etc. I’m all for unified messaging, but I need it in a format that I can structure it. For me Google’s closer to the target than FB.

    • Morgan Brown says:

      Watching the video on it they’re simply going to have friends and then everything else. I can see this getting unweidly for folks with large friend counts, etc. But for the typical Facebook user? I think those are features that will support edge cases and more sophisticated control of the inbox, which Facebook users haven’t exactly clamored for. It will be a detriment to more sophisticated users with large message volumes, I agree with that. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Jason Berman says:

    It’s intriguing but I’m not ready to hand Facebook the keys to my Inbox. Let’s see how Facebook handles basic email functionality first. I need to be convinced that Facebook has the resources to handle this project.

    Plus there is the data portability issue. It’s easier to imagine plugins like Rapportive being developed in a Gmail environment. I suspect Facebook will stumble.

    • Morgan Brown says:

      A couple of thoughts: 1) there will be many business users who use email primarily for business that won’t turn it over to Facebook because a) it’s not built for that and b) do you really want business email mixed with friend email. So I completely understand your thoughts on your default inbox. But there are over 4 billion messages sent on the Facebook platform every day, and 350 of the 500 million are using the functionality – so many inboxes are already there. This is just the next step towards more people abandoning their other web mail clients as they get overrun with spam and the user spends more and more time on Facebook.

      2) The data portability or at least federation with other services issue will have to be resolved if Facebook really wants this client to fly. And they hint at it in their blog post: “Relatively soon, we’ll probably all stop using arbitrary ten digit numbers and bizarre sequences of characters to contact each other. We will just select friends by name and be able to share with them instantly. We aren’t there yet, but the changes today are a small first step.”

      3) In terms of scale and support it will be interesting to see how they roll it out. One of the big differences between this and say Google Wave is that it’s core to the product, not a stand alone science experiment. When they’re in, they’re in. I think they’ll be able to handle it. And even if it doesn’t work perfectly, the Facebook population seems perfectly content with a suboptimal message client (just look at the use of messages now and the complete lack of functionality.)

      • Jason Berman says:

        You are right, the big question is will people abandon their other web mail clients for this one? I don’t see it. For me, it doesn’t matter if email is professional or personal, I want it all going through one hose and from there I want total freedom to move it to any device. I also want total freedom to use that data in third party apps that enhance or ease my communication efforts.

        If/when FB officially opens up and allows users to export their data, their friends data, & the social graph that maps it all together, it’s likely google will have a killer extraction plugin built quickly to stave off the assault on gmail and the other web properties they have cultivated. FB has benefited from Google’s openness. Thus far there hasn’t been reciprocity. A war?

        Can Facebook handle 100 billion non-spam messages (200 emails x 500 million accounts) a day? And if spam makes up 80%-90% of the email traffic on the web, can they handle 1 trillion emails hitting their servers every day. I don’t know. I think they have a tough argument to make.

      • Wirehunt says:

        In reply to 1) fb IS spam.

        In fact the main supply of spam comes from there. So how or why is that going to slow down?

  7. Dr. Thorner says:

    Imagine for a moment a world without Google.

    Then imagine for a moment the world without Facebook.

    Do you get the point?

    Google with it’s search is part of our daily life – both privately and in business. Facebook is not. Facebook enhances the communication of family and friends – which is certainly important – but Google is a knowledge tool…

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