Google, the world’s largest search company, is formally making its pitch to become a major force in social networking. The product it announced Tuesday is called Google+, and observers might wonder whether it’s simply one more social effort by a company that’s had a lousy track record in that field to date.
Parts of it certainly seem to appear similar to what we’ve seen before. One significant component is a continuous scroll called “the stream” that’s an alternative to Facebook’s news feed — a hub of personalized content. It has a companion called “Sparks,” related to one’s specified interests. Together they are designed to be a primary attention-suck of Google users. Google hopes that eventually people will gravitate to the stream in the same way that members of Facebook or Twitter constantly check those continuous scrolls of personalized information.
The second important app is Circles, an improved way to share information with one’s friends, family, contacts and the public at large. It’s an management tool that’s a necessary component of any social network — a way to organize (and recruit) fellow members of the service.
But as I learned in almost year of following the project’s development, with multiple interviews with the team and its executives, Google+ is not a typical release. Developed under the code name Emerald Sea, it is the 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 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, tough 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.
Some think the battle is already lost. Bloggers and critics opine that social software just isn’t in Google’s DNA. Google is all about algorithms, they say, not interactions between humans. And where’s Larry Page’s Facebook profile? (Sergey Brin does have one, under a pseudonym that unmistakably points to its owner.)
But Googlers working on Emerald Sea note that the company has a lot advantages to play on the fields of social networking. Hundreds of millions of users, the vast majority of whom trust the company. Unparalleled mastery of determining relevant information. A vault filled with cash, to buy small companies (Aardvark, Picnik, Slide) that have gained a foothold in a given social activity.
To grasp the significance of this for Google, you must get past a corporate quarantine and catch a glimpse of the giant hand-painted mural that greets those very few visitors granted access to enter to the fourth floor of Building 2000 on the Google campus, which was an early hub of the initiative.
The mural has been there for a year now. On first glance, the artwork, on a wall facing the two elevators, is a frightening mash up of a J.M.W. Turner painting and a storyboard for a scene from The Perfect Storm. It depicts a tumescent oceanscape, dominated by a wall of surf that is about to upturn a pitiful sailing ship.
The image was discovered by Google VP of product management Bradley Horowitz when he opened Google Image Search and typed “Emerald Sea” — which had just been chosen as the project code name. The first result, a depiction of an 1878 painting created by German immigrant artist Albert Bierstadt, so impressed Horowitz that he commissioned a pair of art students to copy it on the wall facing the fourth floor elevators. That way, the hundreds of workers contributing to Emerald Sea would draw inspiration as they headed to their computers to remake Google into a major social networking force.
The massive wave symbolizes the ways Google views the increasingly prominent social aspect of the web — as a possible tsunami poised to engulf it, or a maverick surge that it will ride to glory. Beirstadt’s turbulent vision is the perfect illustration. “We needed a code name that captured the fact that either there was a great opportunity to sail to new horizons and new things, or that we were going to drown by this wave,” Gundotra said last August, when Google first showed me a prototype.
Did he say drown? It almost beggars belief that the king of the search — the most successful internet business ever, with $30 billion in yearly revenue — would be running scared by the social networking trend led by Facebook, a company that barely rakes in a few billion. Nonetheless, people at Google feel that retooling to integrate the social element isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. As early as last August, I asked Gundotra whether he felt Emerald Sea was a bet-the-company project.
“I think so,” he replied. “I don’t know how you can look at it any other way.”
Google still wants to organize the world’s information. But this time, it’s personal.
Google has a checkered history in social software. In some respects, it has been a pioneer; its social networking site Orkut debuted worldwide in January 2004, a month before Facebook first poked the Harvard community. But Google failed to capitalize on early enthusiasm and aside from capturing massive market shares in Brazil and India, Orkut is now a footnote.
In 2007, Google spearheaded a consortium to create an open standard for social network applications called Open Social. It fell short of its goals, largely because the true standard setter in social, Facebook, withheld its cooperation. In 2009, a thrilling demo at Google’s I/O conference introduced the social-based communications system Wave with a bang — but confusion about how to use the product dissipated the enthusiasm. Google waved goodbye to the product last summer.
Also in 2009, Google attempted to crack the social world with a product called Buzz, integrating some aspects of Facebook and Twitter into Gmail. Buzz’s innovations never had a chance to win an audience,as privacy flaws in the product’s initial design generated an internet firestorm. (Buzz instantly created a social network from one’s contacts, sometimes revealing connections that users wanted to keep on the down low.) The glitch confirmed a growing suspicion that Google was a scary company that had too much personal information about its users.
The Buzz disaster came just as Facebook began to look like it may make good on its goal of signing up every human on the planet — creating a treasure trove of information inaccessible to Google’s servers. People at Google began to worry that Facebook could even leverage the information its users shared to create a people-centric version of search that in some cases could deliver more useful results than Google’s crown jewel of a search engine.
In March 2010, only a month after the Buzz debacle, Google’s head of operations Urs Hölzle — an early employee who had been instrumental in setting up Google’s Brobdingnagian data operations — decided to kick-start a new effort. In an e-mail alarum evoking Bill Gates’s legendary 1995 Internet Tidal Wavemissive to Microsofties, Hölzle acknowledged that fundamental way people use the internet has changed.
No longer could Google operate without making its products more personal. The social challenge required decisive and substantial response within Google. He proposed a sort of social-graph Manhattan Project and, in true Google style, crunched some of the numbers by which engineers should be allocated to the project. His memo became known as the Urs-Quake.
At the time Google had just completed renovation of a complex of four-story structures once owned by the Anza drug company that’s only a hundred or so yards north of the main HQ. (Once of the buildings housed the Chrome team, which was busily creating a computer operating system.) Building 2000, named after its Charleston Road address, became the headquarters for Google’s social work.
“It was kind of chaotic, with every team ginning up projects,” says Joseph Smarr, a recent hire who was formerly the CTO of the virtual Rolodex site Plaxo. “It reminded me of the Obama stimulus package, where everybody was spinning their own pet projects to get resources.” Meanwhile, executives met in weekly meetings in the building to try to hammer out a plan.
Sensing a leadership vacuum, Gundotra, who had arrived at Google after a long stint as a Microsoft executive, made it his mission to channel the energy into a more focused, sweeping effort. Gundotra, who is 43, had arrived at Microsoft in the aftermath of the 1980’s applications wars, when Lotus Development Corps, the maker of a seemingly invincible spreadsheet, had failed to decisively adopt the graphical user interface — and was crushed by Bill Gates. Gundotra believed that social networking was a similar discontinuity, and he wanted to make sure that Google’s executives realized this.
“There are only a few emotions that can effect change at a large organization,” he explains. “One is greed and another powerful one is fear.” Outright greed is gauche in the Googleplex, so Gundotra prepared a slide deck that mocked up challenges from Google’s competitors (notably, Facebook), illustrating how each company could turn Google upside down. And vice versa.
A crucial turning point was a May 2010 gathering of 50 of Google’s top people to discuss the broader challenges faced by the company. At one point, the meeting dispersed into breakout sessions of about eight people each. Gundotra was in a group that included Amit Singhal, one of the company’s most respected search engineers. Singhal spoke passionately about how the internet was increasingly organized around people, urging that Google dramatically expand its focus to create a hub of personalization and social activity. Singhal believed that Facebook not only was ahead in that realm, but, worse, it was building an alternative internet with itself in the center.
“If every web page is living on one company’s servers, it’s not healthy for the web,” Singhal later would explain. But there was good news, too. “We’re still just scratching the surface of marrying human relationships with information,” he says. “There’s a huge opportunity which someone else will fill — or we will fill.” Gundotra convinced Singhal to repeat the rant when the group regathered. The words hit Google’s leaders hard.
Gundotra made a pitch to lead the Emerald Sea project, and got the nod. Bradley Horowitz became his co-leader and collaborator. (This year, Gundotra was promoted to senior vice president in charge of social, giving him the top-tier organizational equivalence to Google’s leaders in search and ads.)
Gundotra’s philosophy of product design is to envision the demo he will eventually present at the launch event and work backwards from there. He did this with Google’s social strategy and he and Horowitz created a slide deck that he presented at yet another high level May meeting in Building 2000. The presentation identified ten key elements of the initiative and named a proposed leader for each team. “My name was on a slide,” says Rick Klau, who became the product manager in charge of Profiles. “That was the first time I knew that I was one of the leaders in this effort.” (Klau is now at a different job at Google.)
Oh, and Google would launch this effort in 100 days.
It was a “wild-ass crazy, get-to-the moon” goal, Horowitz says. But a project like Emerald Sea — which quickly expanded to cover 18 current Google products, with almost 30 teams working in concert — was a complicated and challenging task. Indeed, on the hundredth day after that May meeting, which fell in August, Emerald Sea was not completed. But several hundred Googlers were working on the project, and making progress. Gundotra’s demo now had a working prototype. Gundotra and Horowitz had already shown it to Google’s board of directors, who had responded with a standing ovation.
It was that August where I first viewed Emerald Sea. In a small auditorium in Building 2000 Gundotra showed me what had won the board’s ovation. Since then Emerald Sea has undergone many changes. But the philosophy of the product as Gundotra explained that day, has been unwavering.
Emerald Sea is not a Facebook killer, Gundotra told me. In fact, he added, somewhat puckishly, “people are barely tolerant of the Facebook they have,” citing a consumer satisfaction study that rated it barely higher than the IRS. Instead, he says, the transformation will offer people a better Google.
Nonetheless, it was impossible to deny that “+1” (as it was then called) offered some of features closely associated with Facebook. The overall difference is that Google would try to leverage its assets to do certain things more effectively than Facebook, and attempt other things that Facebook can’t pull off yet.
“The internet is nothing but software fabric that connects the interactions of human beings,” Gundotra said. “Every piece of software is going to transformed by this primacy of people and this shift.” Gundotra said that to date identifying people has been “the most epic failure of Google…. Because we were focusing on organizing the world’s information, the search company failed to do the most important search of all.”
But that was about to change.
“Google, thank god, has a few assets. We have hundreds of millions people who love us — they love YouTube, they love Gmail, they love search. What if we were to go across each of those categories and rethink them? The things we have to do are obvious, but Google hasn’t done them. And so Bradley and I have the odd chance to help lead the company to go fix these sins.”
“If you look at Google’s mission of organizing information, you can’t do that absent people,” added Horowitz. “The information I care about is very much informed by who I am and who I know. That’s the real motivation for doing this.”
It hasn’t been easy. Emerald Sea has been the rare initiative in Google where the company was not breaking ground but defensively responding to a competitor’s success. (One engineer has described this process as “chasing taillights,” noting that me-too-ism has never been a strength for Google.) It’s also, claims Gundotra, the most extensive companywide initiative in Google’s history.
Because of the pressure the stakes and the scale, Gundota insisted that Emerald Sea should be an exception to Google’s usual consensus-based management style. He successfully argued that he, with Horowitz’s help, would set the vision. Even the founders would step back. Even though In 2010 Sergey Brin had a desk in Building 2000 and Larry Page dropped in a couple of times a week, their role was advisory with Emerald Sea. “This is a top-down mandate where a clear vision is set out, and then the mode of moving forward is that you answer to Vic,” Rick Klau told me last year. “If Vic says ‘That looks good,’ then it looks good.”
It wasn’t until October 2010 that Emerald Sea was ready for “dog food,” the process by which Googlers would internally test out the product. (The expression comes from the expression “eating your own dog food,” an exercise that presumably improves canine cuisine.) One fall evening just before 8 p.m., Gundotra began the process by e-mailing invitations to about 50 fellow Googlers to join Emerald Sea. “I sent it from my laptop,” says Gundotra, “All the engineers were all crowded around.”
Everybody stuck around that night to see how quickly it would spread around Google. The predictions varied. The most optimistic came from Brin, who felt that whole company would adopt Emerald Sea within five days. More pessimistic team members thought that only about 600 or so Googlers might take the trouble to sign up, create a new profile and upgrade to the new system.
It turned out that 600 people signed up in the first hour. Soon thousands of Googlers were signing up. “The server started melting at 11 p.m.,” says Gundotra, and the engineers hastily beefed up the data center allocations. By the next morning over 90 percent of all of Google’s world wide employees had updated to the system and turned it on.
Gundotra and Horowitz were thrilled. But it soon became apparent that there were problems with the product. The consensus of most of Googlers who played with it was that it was a noble, necessary effort that wasn’t ready for prime time.
“We put the product to [dog food] before it was fully baked, before we hardened the system and polished it and knew what we were doing,” says Horowitz. “We had no getting-started screen, no intro video. It was hard for people to get their hands around what it is and how to begin interacting with it. It was as if Facebook had been in stealth mode for seven years and then launched in its entirety at once today — it would have been an overwhelming, hard-to-comprehend, hard-to-understand system. The feedback we was got was: Simplify.”
The Emerald Sea team got to work streamlining and reconceptualizing. Some features were pushed off until future releases. Others — like the +1 button — were unmoored into separate products and launched separately. (The unofficial slogan was ESAP — Emerald Sea Acceleration Plan.)
When a new version of Emerald Sea returned to dog food this spring, it was stripped down. Also, the team changed the invitation process to limit it only to people who were more motivated to use it. The response from Googlers on the second pass has been much better.
The dog food success made it possible for the milestone announced Tuesday — a “field test” where for the first time outsiders will participate in the prototype system. Depending on how that goes, the next step will be a wider release, but it may be some weeks before the public can sign up. (Is the deliberate rollout a direct consequence of the train wreck that came from Google’s failure to test Buzz externally before its launch? You betcha.)
Finally, it’s game on for Google’s social effort.
Google+ represents a dramatic change that will take users a while to grasp — and, like other social networks, it will be dependent on a critical mass of users to be fulfill its potential. A crucial test will be getting loyal Google users to take the step to venture into the unknown and sign up for Google+.
When you do get invited, you must set up or enhance your Google profile. In essence, says Gundotra, you are “introducing yourself to Google. ” Like Facebook’s, the new Google profile has a public component and more private one, where you can choose who if anyone sees certain information.
After you complete the profile — the only mandatory aspects are real name, age and gender — a new menu item appears on the row of Google features at the top of the screen known as the Sandbar. (The Sandbar itself has been redesigned; now it’s a black bar.) The item is a “+” sign followed by your first name. Clicking on it immerses you in the Emerald Sea. From there, you enter the centerpiece of the new, more social Google: the stream.
If it looks familiar, maybe because it has similarities to the Facebook feed. But there are differences. For one thing there are two main tributaries of content, and for now you must toggle between them. One is a pipeline from your social graph, a cornucopia of social content from friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. Whatever they share an item — and are okay with you seeing it — the link, picture, or comment might appear in your stream.
The second is called Sparks. In this feature, users type in subjects of personal interest — “sparks.” Then Google streams items about that subject. The content that Google pulls into your Sparks stream is different from the results you’d get if you put the same term into the search engine.
“It’s focused on getting stuff that’s fresh and social and fun. We’ve tried to tune parameters to get something that’s engaging,” says Andrew Tomkins, a top search engineer who joined Google after stints at IBM and Yahoo. The signals that Google looks for in determining Sparks content is freshness, a visual component — videos will rank highly — and the degree to which the content is virally spreading on the net. (Tellingly, the Google News group has moved into the Emerald Sea division.) In other words, Sparks tries to deliver the kinds of thing you want to share with others, and Google hopes that its users do just that.
“Sparks is essentially the stuff that flows to you through the interest graph and the stream is the stuff that flows to you through the social graph,” says Tomkins. Basically, Google thinks that its expertise in search quality will make the items in both of these feeds more relevant, interesting and diverse than the stuff people see in their Facebook feed.
Overall, the stream and Sparks are indications of how the need to respond to the social challenge has already changed Google’s philosophy. It’s almost as if the Emerald Sea team is creating an anti-Google. Before starting the company in 1998, Page and Brin had tried to sell their technology to portals like Excite and Yahoo, whose execs refused because the Google search engine was deemed too effective: It would fulfill a users’ requests and then briskly send them on their way, taking their lucrative eyeballs with them. Google insisted that search quality trumped stickiness, and built a business on the premise that users were best served by getting results that sent them off to preferred destinations.
But with these streams, Google is changing direction. Right now, the content from Sparks and the social stream is not intermingled, but it’s reasonable to assume that before long, the company will use its algorithmic powers to produce a single flow that skillfully mixes those apples and oranges. Google has already pulled off a much more complicated version of that trick with Universal Search, which includes web pages, images, videos, books, Tweets, news items and other formats among its results. And that’s only the beginning. With its deep resources of information about its users, Google is capable of delivering a comprehensive collection of information, tailored exactly to one’s needs and interests. “It’s the long-term vision that we have for that newsfeed, that stream,” Gundotra says. “We think long-term, four to five years from now, the system should be putting items in there not just from your friends, but things that Google knows you should be seeing.”
With Sparks, users consciously specify their interests, so for now Google is sidestepping the privacy concerns that might rise if it began showing people items based on things like search results and e-mails. But if Google ever gets around to building a stream that draws from all its properties — and convinces people that it’s not a privacy problem — it could deliver something unique.
This mother of all streams would be the equivalent of an intravenous feed of information, with inclusion of all the vital content from our social graph and the world at large (Google calls this the “interest graph”). It would scroll forever, and everything would be relevant. If Google’s original goal was to expeditiously dispatch us elsewhere, with this near-clairvoyant stream, Google could turn us into search potatoes who never leave.
As for the other big product, Circles, Google has accomplished something that Facebook should have done first. It offers a simple means of organizing one’s social network so that your sharing is microtargeted. When someone opts in to Google+, he or she will be able to divvy up contacts into one or more groups — family, friends, co-workers or anything you can imagine. You populate groups by dragging someone’s picture over a circular “chip” that represents the group — or lasso a group of people and drag them over. You can create a circle of people you don’t know personally, but want to follow.
Google believes that with Circles it has solved the tough sharing problem that Facebook has inexplicably failed to crack. “With Facebook I have 500 friends — my mom’s my friend, my boss is my friend,” says Shimrit Ben-Yair, the product manager in charge of the social graph. “So when I share on Facebook, I overshare. On Twitter, I undershare, because it’s public. If Google hits that spot in the middle, we can revolutionize social interaction.”
“Networks are for networking,” Gundotra says. “Circles are for the right people.”
One thing that Google will not do is craft this social network on its own and present it to you full-blown — that was the privacy violation that doomed Buzz. “You have to manually add people to those circles,” says Smarr. But with the easy to use drag and drop “chip interface,” doing so is easy.
Right now, Google won’t even suggest who should be in your circles. But it has the technology to do so — it’s already making suggestions on who you might include on Gmail mailing lists. So in the future it’s conceivable that Google might indeed provide plenty of nonbinding suggestions for who you might want it your Circles. “We’ve got this whole system already in place that hasn’t been used that much where we keep track of every time you e-mail someone or chat to them or things like that,” says Smarr. “Then we compute affinity scores. So we’re able to do suggestions not only about who you should add to a circle, or even what circles you could create out of whole cloth.”
Another twist is that people in your circles don’t have to be members of Google’s social net. If Aunt Mary refuses to opt in, you can include her anyway, and she can still get the pictures you post to the circle via e-mail.
Once you’ve established your circles, sharing becomes granular. When you want to share something you will move the chip representing the circle over to a “share box.” It then goes out to everyone in the circle. (They will see it in their stream.) If you choose to share the item with a circle called “public,” the item is regarded as a broadcast, in the same way that a tweet can be seen by anyone who follows you. (Google anticipates that most people will create a circle of “people you follow,” so you could view their posts on your stream.)
Looking ahead, Google feels that its expertise in determining relevancy will eventually give it an edge in its social stream. By your behavior, it could figure out which circles are more important to you, and feature those more prominently. “A post from someone in your extended network might have less weight than someone in your family circle,” says Ben-Yair. “So you may or may not stumble upon it, based on the ranking it would have. We could take this nuanced, tailored social graph — not the standard graph but the real graph — and supercharge all of Google’s products with it.”
Besides the stream and Circles, this version of Google+ has some other new social features. One that was elevated to prominence in the revamp was the video-chat “Hangout.” It allows users to spontaneously connect in video chats, with up to 10 people participating. Googlers have embraced it, sometimes letting the meetings linger for hours. When multiple people are involved in a chat, each person with his or her own separate window in the screen, Hangout figures out who has the floor and expands the window of that current speaker. (This is an innovation that Microsoft had perfected in its labs some years earlier.) It’s like a group Chatroulette without nudity and with about 100 extra I.Q. points.
The mobile Google+ application runs on web, Android and — soon, pending Apple approval — iPhone. The mobile version adds a couple other features: One allows you to engage in SMS-like “huddles” with people in a group. It also includes a view labeled “Nearby”: Simply by hitting that tab you can see what people in your immediate area are publicly sharing.
Another feature, “instant upload” automatically dispatches to the cloud any of the pictures snapped on your phone, so that you can easily send them off to any circles you want to share with. “Photos are really the most significant driver of the social experience,” says Jonathan Sposato, who came to Google in its acquisition of Picnik. “For any social effort to make an impact, the photo experience has got to be great.”
Will the stream and Circles be the answer to those who charge that Google that Google’s social efforts are doomed because Larry Page doesn’t grok social software? “We don’t mind [if they say that],” says Gundotra. “What matters is, are we producing products that consumers will love, and will they improve sharing? We’re going to deliver that.”
In late January, Google announced that Eric Schmidt was stepping aside as CEO and Larry Page would be replacing him in April. But Page didn’t wait until then to declare himself all-in for Emerald Sea. Soon after the announcement he moved his office across campus to a location nearer the social team; around the same time, Brin cleared out his desk in Building 2000 and began spending more time on long-term projects.
And after Page formally took the CEO title, he reportedly mandated that 25 percent of the annual bonus check for all Google employees would be dependent on how well the company does in its social efforts.
Emerald Sea teams learned that Page’s attention did not drift from the project on weekends and late nights. Page banged hard on the product, and apparently became fond of some features, including the video hangout. He would sometimes open a hangout area and leave it open to the first few Googlers who would be quick enough to join — lucky employees who had the rare opportunity to informally chatter with the otherwise cloistered CEO.
“Larry is incredibly product-focused,” says Gundotra. “He calls me up Sunday nights with detailed feedback.” Gundotra cites an example where Page was complaining about the performance of instant upload. “This is too many clicks,” said the CEO. “Tell me why it automatically doesn’t show up in the share box, tell me why an icon doesn’t show up right there with the pictures in the last eight hours and tell me why it’s not one click.” When Gundotra tried to explain, Page interrupted. “I don’t care,” he said. “I want this thing fixed.”
Page, however, seems to recognize that this project in some ways requires a different approach from the Google norm. One variation that users will notice comes in interface design — conspicuously, in Circles. With colorful animations, drag-and-drop magic and whimsical interface touches, Circles looks more like a classic Apple program than the typically bland Google app. That’s no surprise since the key interface designer was legendary software artist Andy Herzfeld.
The former Macintosh wizard now works at Google — though he loves the company, he had previously felt constrained because its design standards didn’t allow for individual creativity. But with Emerald Sea, he had a go-ahead to flex his creative muscles. “It wasn’t a given that anyone would like what I was doing, but they did,” he says.
Traditionally, Larry Page has been a blood foe of “swooshy” designs and animations geared to delight users. He feels that it such frills slow things down. But Page has signed off on the pleasing-pixel innovations in Circles, including a delightful animation when you delete a circle: It drops to the bottom of the screen, bounces and sinks to oblivion. That animation adds a few hundred milliseconds to the task; in the speed-obsessed Google world that’s like dropping “War and Peace” on a reading list. “I’ve heard in the past that Larry Page he didn’t like animations but that didn’t stop me from putting in a lot of animations in, and Larry told me he loves it.” says Hertzfeld. “Maybe Apple’s resurgence had a little bit to do with it.” In any case, Google has recently tapped Hertzfeld as the design leader of the Emerald Sea team.
As Emerald Sea goes public, the company is breathing a sign of relief; for the past few weeks, to mark both the pressure and euphoria, many of the engineers have been coming to work on Fridays in suits and jackets — even in tuxedos. But there’s also some concerns as Google moves towards remaking itself in a realm where it has never been comfortable.
“You start off with a vision, skepticism, lots of fear and doubt,” says Gundotra. “I think the optimism on the team is increasing — we can actually have an impact here. At the same time, we’re trying to be humble. We have not had the greatest of success in this space, and so we want to be quick to iterate based on feedback, and relatively low-key about what we’re doing.”
“It’s going to be a really interesting challenge,” says Smarr. “Google’s not used to having to go out and win over users. Things like search just sit there and accrete users. Google could win over many more users it if tried harder, but it’s not its style to e-mail people or bug them.”
And then there is the elephant residing only minutes from the Google campus: Facebook. Last year, Smarr went to Facebook to gauge whether it would be open to allowing their users to export their connections if they so wished. “They said in theory they’re open to it, but they’re also scared that we’re trying to kill them,” he told me last fall; Facebook’s CTO Bret Taylor, also a Google veteran, says that in general he does believe that people should have freedom to share their Facebook information elsewhere.
Since then, relations between the companies have reached a nadir. The rivalry made headlines last April when Facebook was exposed as the force behind a whispering campaign against Google — the charge was that Google was unscrupulously raiding Facebook information about its users’ social graph. Google would dispute that. In any case, at this point there seem to be no negotiations between the companies to make their products operate with each other.
The inability of Google+ users to instantly import their Facebook connections underlies the biggest immediate challenge to the product: Like all social networks, its value is directly related to the degree that one’s friends and contacts are also participating. Beginning a social network is always a huge risk because of the chicken-and-egg problem — the whole thing doesn’t work unless a user’s friends and contacts are on board. Otherwise the place risks becoming an “Emptytown” where people try it, are unable to connect with anyone and then forget about it.
Google hopes that its slow rollout will encourage a steady momentum, and in the early stages Google+ will provide enough value to keep the early adopters engaged, and that it will motivate them to invite their contacts.
No one expects an instant success. But even if this week’s launch evokes snark or yawns, Google will keep at it. Google+ is not a product like Buzz or Wave where the company’s leaders can chalk off a failure to laudable ambition and then move on. “We’re in this for the long run,” says Ben-Yair. “This isn’t like an experiment. We’re betting on this, so if obstacles arise, we’ll adapt.”
“I don’t really see what Google’s alternative is,” says Smarr. “People are going to be a fundamental layer of the internet. There’s no going back.”