Google announced a new social sharing project today called Google+. It's among the company's most ambitious ventures to date, up there with Gmail, Android, Chrome and, yes, Search. It represents Google's very future. It's going to be huge.
Google+ is a concerted effort meant to turn the ship around. Google famously has a poor social track record. Buzz and Wave were failures, so it needs to get this right. But Google+ goes far beyond just sharing status updates or photos with friends: It aims to change the very way we share and communicate. As it notes in a new blog post today, "We'd like to bring the nuance and richness of real-life sharing to software. We want to make Google better by including you, your relationships, and your interests."
While there is much more to come, there are three major pieces announced today:
Circles let you share selectively with certain groups of people. You create a new circle, add contacts to it, and can share with just those selected people. As Google says "[t]he problem is that today's online services turn friendship into fast food—wrapping everyone in friend paper—and sharing really suffers." This seems to be somewhat like Facebook's friends lists. But the big difference is that it isn't a walled garden. You don't have to opt into Google+ to be included in a circle. If I want to add someone to it who's not a Google+user, I can do so via email and they can still take see the things I want to share with them.
Sparks is essentially a topical section that delivers news videos and blog posts on subjects you define. But moreover it lets you discuss those things with other people, or as Google puts it, "nerding out and exploring subjects together." This is something that Google is almost uniquely positioned to deliver. If you think about your Facebook feed, or, say a Tumblr tagged feed, they contain items placed there by humans. Google can deliver an endless supply of newly relevant items using an algorithm.
Hangouts is an online meetup space with live video that includes up to ten people. But it's designed to let people come and go, dropping by at will, rather than be locked into scheduled meetings. It sounds a bit like Campfire with video.
Mobile is the last major component announced today, and it has several moving parts. The table stakes are that you can always add your location (or not). Instant Upload automatically adds your photos to a private album online. Finally, Huddle is a group messaging tool that lets you communicate with a self-selected circle on your mobile device.
But these are just the beginning stages, the initial rollouts that are part of a much larger project led by Vic Gundotra. Wired's Steven Levy followed Google+ from the inside for more than a year, and has the inside scoop. As he notes, it's a huge drive by Google. In fact it is, more or less, Google's future—an internal Manhattan Project meets moon shot.
Developed under the codename Emerald Sea, it is a result of a lengthy and urgent effort involving almost all of the company's products. Hundreds of engineers were involved in the effort. It has been a key focus for new CEO Larry Page.
The parts announced Tuesday represent only a portion of Google's plans. In an approach the company refers to as "rolling thunder," Google has been quietly been pushing out pieces of its ambitious social strategy—there are well over 100 launches on its calendar. When some launches were greeted by yawns, the Emerald Sea team leaders weren't ruffled at all—lack of drama is part of the plan. Google has consciously refrained from contextualizing those products into its overall strategy.
That overall strategy will begin now, with the announcement of the two centerpieces of Google+. But even this moment—revealed in a blog post that marks the first limited "field tests" outside the company—will be muted, because it marks just one more milestone in a long slog to remake Google into something more "people centric."
"We're transforming Google itself into a social destination at a level and scale that we've never attempted - orders of magnitude more investment in terms of people than any previous project," says Vic Gundotra, who leads Google's social efforts.
The entire story is worth a read, complete with outsized personalities, massive stakes, and secret murals. But the takeaway is that this isn't just about social networking. As Levy notes, it's much bigger than that: It's about organizing information around people.
As Tim Carmody points out on Twitter, "Google doesn't actually care about social. Google cares about identity. Social (such as it is) is a means to an end." And: "Not accidental that social, identity, apps, & browser are all linked. This is Google's play to control the whole stack like Apple does."
I agree. Google's biggest screwup wasn't ceding social space to Facebook. It was ceding identity.
Google wants to get to know you, and help you to get to know yourself. It wants to be the go-to place where you show who you are and what you care about to your friends, your family, your coworkers and the entire world. It wants to be the key you use to unlock the Web and the internet as a whole, the passageway through which all your interactions flow. Today is a big step in that direction.