Google and Twitter Do Some Good for Egyptians -- and Themselves

Last Updated Feb 1, 2011 10:02 AM EST

It took few demonstrations for the Hosni Mubarak government to stop virtually all online communications in Egypt. Now the regime has shut down the country's last ISP. Protesters have depended on Facebook and Twitter as important (although not indispensible) tools in organizing.

So Google (GOOG), its recent acquisition SayNow, and Twitter put together an alternative over the weekend: a talk-to-tweet service. Users leave a voicemail on one of three international numbers. The new system turns the message turned into a tweet with the hashtag #egypt, so people can find it on Twitter. In trying to be good corporate world citizens, the companies somehow channeled Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs and stumbled onto a secret of competitive advantage.

Technology often too strongly influences on what tech companies do. That sounds absurd, like saying milk has too much importance in the dairy industry. However, a software or hardware company can become enamored with the sheer coolness of what it can accomplish. It's called putting features before benefits. Indulge in navel-gazing revelry about yourself and you can lose interest in customers, who may not care about your product or see nothing worth paying for.

Jobs is master of balancing technical capabilities with what consumers will want, whether they realize it or not. His great skill has been to understand when technology can satisfy the underlying subconscious itches of his target market. Ironically, his formula uses technology to make complications and even its own apparent existence disappear while providing a service that people come to appreciate.

Google and Twitter have inadvertently grabbed some of that magic. By voice-enabling Twitter for this situation, they created a service people hadn't thought about. After all, who doesn't have Internet access to use Twitter? Many, as some thought suggests. Get beyond the geopolitical considerations and you could see that someone on the move might find leaving a voicemail easier than having to fire up an app and type in a sentence or two.

Google, in particular, could use this experience to better redirect its internal product development toward what would be commercially viable. Now, if only Twitter could use this to develop some real revenue streams.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.