With Buzz, Google Shows its Facebook Envy

Google Buzz and the services it supports at launch

I was totally on board with Google Buzz, the company’s late entry into the modern-day social web launching today, until it became dramatically evident how freaked out Google is by Facebook. Despite multiple questions from journalists at today’s press briefing at Google’s HQ in Mountain View, Calif., today about the elephant in the room, the Buzz product team and executives couldn’t manage a single utterance of the word “Facebook.”

Such silence has two implications: One, it speaks to defensive and reactive product design; and two, it shows that Google’s aim is not a fully open and integrated approach. That’s self-defeating, considering the stated aim of Google Buzz is to bring relevance to the world of sharing information online. If Google Buzz is yet another place that privileges its own information creation and recommendations, we users get stuck in another silo. Of course, siloing information can be good for users’ personal privacy as well as any company’s hope to own a market — and we all know Facebook is just as guilty as Google of that.

Still, Google co-founder Sergey Brin limply tried to defend the also-ran social network Orkut’s dominance in its markets and spoke in vague terms about how “at any given time there are definitely successful companies.” Meanwhile both Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz reminded the crowd gathered in person and by webcast that Google was not the first search engine, but won by being better than those it followed.

Buzz product manager Todd Jackson did say, without mentioning Facebook by name but responding to a question about integrating Facebook Connect, “We don’t have anything to announce on that at this time but it’s something that we’ll think about.”

To be fair, Google Buzz looks quite useful. It borrows the best elements of sites like Twitter (status updates, following), Flickr (a nice photo viewer), Friendfeed (condensed real-time information), Tumblr (encouraging commenting on followed friends), Foursquare and Gowalla (location-aware check-ins via mobile), and Yammer and Socialcast (Horowitz said enterprise support is on the way). Oh, and Facebook (private and public sharing controls, in-line media, etc., etc.).

But Google Buzz also adds some extremely useful tweaks:

* Auto-following the 40 people you email and chat with the most from the time you open the product (which is rolling out to Gmail users over the next 24 hours)

* Really nice email integration — this tops Facebook by far, though it could easily get out of control. Buzz items show up directly in your inbox, as well as in a tab within Gmail. You can open an item to comment directly because it’s a “live object with an open connection to the server that gets updates in all time,” as Jackson described it. @replies a la Twitter can lasso someone directly into a thread.

* Recommendations: Buzz learns over time what you like, and highlights items that friends like and share, while collapsing boring messages at the bottom of the screen.

* Good mobile integration — on Android you can use voice to update, and now Buzz comments show up on locations within Google Maps Mobile and on the map itself via little conversation bubbles on the spot they were made from.

Please see the disclosure in my bio about Facebook.

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