Many people are talking about Steve Yegge’s rant that was mistakenly posted publicly on Google+ complaining about the lack of platform thinking at Google. As far as viral content goes, this had it all. It had much insider information (negative and positive) about Amazon, talks about Microsoft and Facebook and then praises much of Google, while smashing it for not having enough support for developers. Yegge has nice writing skills and it shows.
But there are several problems with his analysis and recommendations:
I don’t quite understand why Google should try to out-Amazon Amazon with services. Google is a big benefactor of Amazon, sending tons of traffic Amazon’s way when people search on books and other merchandise. Now, the Kindle Fire’s Silk browser development does pose a challenge to this relationship, but the Fire itself was a response to the Apple iPad and B&N’s Nook Color, not Google. The Google App Engine is a completely different animal from Amazon’s web services – they are in similar markets, but are not simple substitutes.
The history of Facebook is quite different from Yegge’s prescription “Start with a Platform, and Then Use it for Everything“. Facebook was launched early 2004 and the Facebook Platform in May 2007, more than 3 years later. Facebook started at Harvard, slowly opened up to Ivy League colleges, then to other colleges, then high schools and then became open in 2006. The critical piece in this success was gaining momentum and thus network effects pushed other social media to the side. The Facebook Platform accelerated this, but it didn’t come first.
Facebook is a menace to Google’s primary revenue stream, i.e., advertising dollars on the web. While Google knows what you are searching for, Facebook knows your interests and people with similar likes and can target you just as effectively. And Facebook can keep users on its site all day long, just as Google has been trying to do by capturing your search box and releasing the Chrome browser. So Google needs to find a way to disrupt Facebook.
With this in mind, Google has tried several things. One of the major initial steps it took was the purchase of Orkut, which was a good social networking media and had a lot of potential. But it never gained popularity beyond India and Brazil, and the existence of an Indian Diaspora in the United States meant that there was a slow transition of such users to Facebook. Google tried Buzz, a failed initiative to capture the massive Gmail user base. Google tried Wave, another tool with much potential that seemed to lack a focused marketing strategy (i.e., nobody knew how to use it usefully).
Finally, we are here in 2011 and Google has come out with Google+. And here they have got a few things right: The Twitter-like following model, the “unlimited” text sharing, the photos integration, the public sharing, and even the +1 button and the “Circles” (which has preempted privacy concerns). The fact that Facebook has come out with several new (and planned) features (Subscriptions, better photo browsing, Timeline) shows that they have recognized Google+ as a major threat. (Remember that web analytics can easily show a company like Facebook when user patterns change and they have definitely changed with the release of G+)
Google+ is not going to overthrow Facebook by being a better Facebook. Taking on a market leader directly seldom works. For example, try overthrowing Microsoft Office by developing yet another desktop office product (Star Office?) You have to offer a different set of values that will appeal to people. Also, even the biggest advantage of your competitor may sometimes have huge weaknesses. For example, Facebook’s platform allows applications to post all sorts of garbage in your wall or come up in your stream and many people don’t know how to disable them. Facebook’s inattention (deliberate or not) to privacy worries has exacerbated the situation.
Yegge’s post has a joke about the so-called “Stalker API”. But in fact, IMO, that is the API that everyone wants. Why is Twitter so popular for something that is so limited (140 chars!)? Because it allows an insignificant person like me follow very, very important people and celebrities. Human beings are social creatures and they are naturally curious about other people and especially about famous people. Google+ allows you to do that (without the need to be “Friends”) and also allows you to comment with the expectation that the VIP will notice and reply to you. The more celebrities Google+ has, the faster its growth.
Right now, the early adopters seem to be photographers, journalists, and the tech community. But Google+’s model is very similar to Twitter and we can expect many Twitter power users to move to G+. Replicating the Twitter API or its most popular functionality should not be a huge endeavor for Google. With the initial success of G+ that has proved the concept and Facebook’s public panic, I should think that Google would be willing to pour more money into G+. Early signs such as the retiring of Google Buzz and iGoogle’s social features point in this direction.
Bottom line predictions and analysis: Google is on the right track with Google+. It has demonstrated very early success and gained significant traction, scaring Facebook. Google will be making larger investments in Google+ and integrating it with other products while retiring other products (including Orkut which will be carefully integrated into G+). The Google API will be improved and its first casualty will be Twitter. Google has to be very careful to avoid the spamming of the stream that has been the curse of Facebook applications.