Google is like Apple. Whenever it announces anything the world goes mad. Or at least the world’s media goes mad. It must be so galling for other technology companies.
Every launch attracts similar headlines. A few weeks ago the Nexus One smartphone was the potential “iPhone killer”. Google Talk was the “Skype killer”. Google Docs was the “Microsoft Office killer”. Then yesterday came Google Buzz, the ‘Facebook and Twitter killer’. (The much-hyped Google Wave confused most commentators who couldn’t figure out what it’s for let alone what it’s supposed to kill.)
The funny thing is, apart from with its search engine, Google hasn’t really killed its opposition anywhere. It does own YouTube, but that was the dominant online video service before Google bought it. Everywhere else it’s a bit of an also-ran and a number of its launches have risen without trace.
So yesterday’s Buzz announcement might not be quite as exciting as some commentators seem to think. It’s not even the company’s first foray into social networking, that was Orkut in 2004 which is apparently big in Brazil, but globally it doesn’t seem to be bothering Facebook much. Neither has Twitter been challenged much by its competitor Jaiku which Google bought in 2007 and then left to wither on the vine.
There also can’t be that many people desperate for yet another social network. Many users already complain about being overloaded by Facebook and Twitter on top of email and instant messaging. But if Google Buzz can help tidy up this mess it might take off.
Part of its design should enable users to aggregate all those streams of updates from services such as Twitter and to exert some control over them. Basically, you should be able to hide the boring bits. Google’s certainly not the first company to offer this. For instance, FriendFeed, now owned by Facebook, has been doing it for years, only better. Funnily enough, FriendFeed was set up by a group of former Google employees.
FriendFeed brings together far more services and allows users to interact with them. With Twitter you can post to your feed as well as displaying it. Buzz doesn’t yet let you publish directly to your Twitter account. More importantly, Google’s service doesn’t even mention Facebook let alone allow you to interact with it. That is a massive shortcoming.
But Buzz could still thrive. It’s great strength and potential weakness is that it is very closely integrated with Google Mail or Gmail. Anybody who uses that service will get a Buzz account at some point over the next few weeks. (Mine appeared as I was writing this article.)
The advantage for Google is this will ensure there is an initial Buzz user base of 176.5 million, that’s the number who visited the site in December according to comScore. It could be a great start for the service, but the point of social networking is to allow users to keep in contact with friends and contacts. In comparison, Facebook has 400 million active users.
Gmail is not even the most popular email service. It’s third behind Microsoft’s Hotmail which has more than twice as many users with 369.2 million unique visitors in December and Yahoo mail with 303.7 million. And Yahoo introduced similar services to Buzz last August.
So by integrating Buzz with Gmail Google has ensured it will have a user base, but for it to grow it will need to persuade a substantial number of people to switch email services. That’s a big challenge.
Any social networking service also has to have a strong mobile element. Google is making great play of Latitude which allows users to announce the place where they are. The idea is you’ll be able to see which of your friends are currently around the shopping mall or in a particular pub.
It’s a type of application people will sneer about, but they’ll use. It’s nice to bump into friends when you’re out. This reduces the element of chance.
Overall, Google Buzz may turn out to be a collection of solutions looking for problems. It does so many things it’s inevitably going to confuse large numbers of potential users. And the greatest strength of Twitter and Facebook is their initial simplicity.