This morning Google switched on real time conversations on Gmail, mobile, and Google Profiles. The product got the name Google Buzz.
As the former product manager and someone who made the decision to sell a startup and move his family halfway around the world to build said product, it’s an emotional moment to see it out in the wild.
Of course, I left a good while ago and credit is due in its entirety to the team at Google.
What everyone wants to know now is, will Buzz disrupt Facebook and Twitter? Or did it flame up thanks to Google hype, only to smolder away unloved and unused like Wave?
Here’s what I suspect. Although Google’s getting into the game late, the timing may be just right. The game is no longer just about “what are you doing”. As microblogging has become more popular, the stream has become more busy, and people are getting tired of sifting through the noise. So, now that pretty much everyone has shown up for the party, the value is moving to discovery, context, and relevance. The question we increasingly feel our social inbox should answer better is: “given what you know about me, look at everything I subscribe to, and show me only the updates I care about most right here, right now.” In one word: Search. And who has the advantage there? We know who.
Second, look at what’s happening to usage. You don’t need a crystal ball to know that mobile is becoming the primary (in some cases the only) interface to daily social media. Facebook’s and Twitter’s mobile clients? Let’s be straight, they’re lame feed scrollers compared to what they could be. Nobody has come even close to harnessing the full power of mobile. Which of the three companies has its own mobile platform: Facebook, Twitter, or Google? Again, we know who.
Third, note that Buzz is built to be compatible with open standards that enable the distributed production and processing of real time updates. In fact, where standards didn’t exist, ones were set in place, with the philosophy to enable developers working with existing web technologies to apply them with minimal effort. This could be the most significant contribution of the entire project in the long run.
Google’s weakness historically has been in that it hasn’t “gotten sharing right”. If there’s one thing I’m interested to watch get used in real life it’s the sharing model, which allows sharing of both public and private content in the same stream. Having different privacy settings coexist intuitively in an interface is one of the trickiest design challenges there is. A lot of time was spent tuning this, and I’m pretty optimistic about the result.
When the Jaiku team joined Google, we were tasked with doing “something cool with mobile and social”. Teemu mashed up Jaiku and Google Maps on the mobile in a couple of weeks, but we couldn’t use it because it was built on Jaiku’s, not Google’s social graph.
The problem at the time was that there was no Google-wide social graph. There was no sharing model or friend groups. There was no working activity stream back-end. There were not even URLs for people. All this had to be built, and parts of the whole (such as Google Profiles and Latitude) were shipped incrementally along the way. The archstone that connects everything together is Buzz in Gmail.
The task has been truly herculean, and I have deep respect for the engineers and designers who pulled it through over literally years of iteration and countless changes. I left before Buzz shipped, but learned a lot of valuable lessons about building something that big.
Did we get it right? It would be great to hear your thoughts.
PS. If you read just one thing on Buzz, make it Tim O’Reilly’s post from earlier today. Tim sees what Google is doing (and should be doing) with Buzz better than any other commentator I’ve seen so far.