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Google+ -- a Sign Google Is Running Scared

There must have been a time when executives at Coca-Cola were sure that New Coke would be a hit. When those at Ford expected the Edsel to become the car of its times. On Tuesday, Google (GOOG) rolled out Google+: the company's latest panicked attempt to stake out social networking and preserve its relevance in the wake of Facebook. And of course the company poobahs think it's grand.

There's just one problem. This is yet another Google product controlled by the same corporate culture that has done virtually everything else at the company, other than such one-offs as Android and YouTube, which were acquisitions, after all. Google once again will preserve its cash cow and, in doing so, prove itself the spiritual heir to Microsoft (MSFT). No future is so bright as to be immune from abject terror and the siren call of business as usual.

Gotta make it work, dudes
Different from Google's +1 sharing service, Google+ is really a combination of several services:

  • Circles -- creating groups of people and sharing different content with them,
  • Sparks -- a stream-style information update from sources you choose,
  • Hangouts -- multiple video chats at the same time,
  • Mobile -- upload images from your phone to share, broadcast your location to friends, and use real-time group chap.
Matt Rosoff at Business Insider had a good way to put this into context: Circles is Facebook, Sparks is Google Reader, instant uploading is Microsoft Kin or Apple (AAPL) iCloud, and so forth.

Google is clearly in full press PR mode, even though it's pretending to downplay the activity (maybe because it has repeatedly screwed up on social networking and privacy) and even play the media. Here's a quote from TechCrunch's (AOL) MG Siegler, who got some extra attention from The Powers That Be Google:

"We believe online sharing is broken. And even awkward," [Google senior vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra] says. "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," he continues. "Real life sharing is nuanced and rich. It has been hard to get that into software," is the last thing he says before diving into a demo of Google+.
And here's an early section from Google's blog entry about Google+:
Among the most basic of human needs is the need to connect with others. With a smile, a laugh, a whisper or a cheer, we connect with others every single day.Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online. Yet the subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools.

In this basic, human way, online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it.

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. And so begins the Google+ project.

At that point, the blog incorporates a video and begins to give a demo of Google+. If that wasn't reading off a script, I don't know what would be.

Imitation is the sincerest form of originality
Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand thought that Google+ looked and quacked like a would-be Facebook duck, and maybe with some Twitter thrown in. Except, from a business view, there are some real weaknesses, like no apparent integration between Google's +1 buttons and Google+ and limited abilities to import contacts, which means starting from scratch for many.

But the central thing to observe is how Google+ is supposed to be an extension of Google itself. It's a nice sounding concept, but as Dave Winer noted, there's an obvious line of thought in how a project like this gets off the ground, from step one, "We need to kill Facebook," to step 8, "Something people will have no choice but to use.":

So if you're Microsoft in 1999, you bake it into Windows. If you're Google in 2011, you bake it into search.
Bingo. Google has become Microsoft because it knows only one way to react to change: Protect the cash cow. Make everything look like the cash cow. Even the successful services are variations -- Android, where you give away the operating system to get people to search using Google on phones, extending your cash cow, or YouTube, where people search for videos and then see ads next to pictures, rather than next to text and Web links.

For better or worse, Facebook came together organically. But no matter how slick Google+ may or may not look, it's a search bolt-on. This is Google saying that social should really look like search, just as earlier today, Microsoft essentially reiterated its position that the cloud should look like a conventional desktop.

In his story The Bear, William Faulkner wrote: "Be scared. You can't help that. But don't be afraid. Ain't nothing in the woods going to hurt you unless you corner it, or it smells that you are afraid." Entrepreneurs get scared -- it's natural. There's a lot of money and time and hopes that ride on a new venture.

But the managers of big companies get afraid, because they could lose everything they have achieved. That's what happened to Microsoft, why it can't get beyond its two key products. And it's happening to Google, as well.

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Image: Flickr user LaDawna's pics, CC 2.0.