Watching Google once again try and take down Facebook, I was reminded of an observation offered by a 19th century geek who rightly noted that history often repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce. from Google of what remains a work-in-progress isn't going to shake up the world of social networking anytime soon. But listening to their rhetoric, you would be excused for assuming that the debut of Google+ was something akin to a revolution.
Listen to Vic Gundotra, Google's senior vp of engineering, riff about the cosmic significance of today's news:
"We believe online sharing is broken. And even awkward ... We think connecting with other people is a basic human need. We do it all the time in real life, but our online tools are rigid. They force us into buckets -- or into being completely public ... Real life sharing is nuanced and rich. It has been hard to get that into software."
That's a sweet and not entirely vacuous comment since you don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to decipher the not-so-hidden threat hiding behind his contention that "online sharing is broken ..and even awkward." Translation: Facebook has done a hash of it and users are just dying for a white knight to come riding out of the Googleplex with a better mousetrap to show the world.
I suppose that explains why Facebook has supplanted Google as Silicon Valley's "it" company with a valuation somewhere between $70 billion and $80 billion. And all this because they are so incompetent at developing technology? Well, you get the point.
But there's no mystery here. This is all part of the usual hyperbole that you hear from entrenched, powerful companies when they intend to turn their rivals into road kill. Microsoft used to do this all the time. Sometimes it worked such as when Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were able to crush Novell's Netware operating system with Windows NT, with Microsoft bombarding the airwaves and the print media relentlessly (this was back before the blogosphere got going.) Other times Microsoft was less successful. Indeed, the company's recent past hasn't been so kind with a track record of product flops highlighted by the likes of the Zune, the Kin, Windows ME, and Vista.
Who's to say whether Google+ will share a similar fate? I'm not making any predictions though Google's previous social networking initiatives, like Buzz and Orkut, so far have failed to wow the world. That's not to say this latest try won't have an impact, but how many of Facebook's nearly 700 million users do you think are going to log off?
In a blog post he wrote following Google's announcement, software developer Dave Winer summarized nicely the inherent contradiction between size and creativity that's been apparent for some time in the tech business.
"Products like the one Google just announced are hatched at off-sites at resorts near Monterey or in the Sierra, and were designed to meet the needs of the corporation that created it. A huge scared angry corporation. What little is left of the spark that created it in the first place is now used to being Number One, and wants to feel that again. It's being created to make that person feel better."
The Googlers will argue that point to their last breath. Yet Google's argument is that they've found a way to radically reinvent sharing and tagging and chat rooms in a way that other social networks were too dense to figure out. From this vantage point, that sounds like more marketing babble with little of the spark that Winer notes helped ignite a company that emerged from nowhere to zip past Microsoft. (Let's also not forget that relations between the two companies are poor. In May, Facebook fessed up to being behind a sleazy whispering campaign against Google.)
Here's one prediction that I will make. When you consider how little Google's world changed when Microsoft's Bing entered the search fray, it's hard to believe that Google+ will be enough to knock Mark Zuckerberg off of his privileged perch either. As was noted earlier, history occasionally does repeat itself.