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.