How Google Can Beat Facebook: No, It’s Not on the Web

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A few years ago, Jeff Jarvis, a good friend of mine, published a book called What Would Google Do? When he wrote that book, Google had an aura of invincibility. Fast forward to today: Thanks to Facebook, it doesn’t seem so invincible. The new social web has passed it by. So, the question today is: What should Google do?

I’ve always maintained Google has to play to its strengths – that is, tap into its DNA of being an engineering-driven culture that can leverage its immense infrastructure. It also needs to leverage its existing assets even more, instead of chasing rainbows. In other words, it needs to look at Android and see if it can build a layer of services that get to the very essence of social experience: communication.

However, instead of getting bogged down by the old-fashioned notion of communication – phone calls, emails, instant messages and text messages – it needs to think about interactions. In other words, Google needs to think of a world beyond Google Talk, Google Chat and Google Voice.

To me, interactions are synchronous, are highly personal, are location-aware and allow the sharing of experiences, whether it’s photographs, video streams or simply smiley faces. Interactions are supposed to mimic the feeling of actually being there. Interactions are about enmeshing the virtual with the physical.

In a post earlier, I outlined that with the introduction of its unified Inbox, the constantly changing Facebook had shifted its core value proposition from being a plain vanilla social network to a communication company. Here’s a relevant bit from that post.

Facebook imagined email only as a subset of what is in reality communication. SMS, Chat, Facebook messages, status updates and email is how Zuckerberg sees the world. With the address book under its control, Facebook is now looking to become the “interaction hub” of our post-broadband, always-on lives. Having trained nearly 350 million people to use its stream-based, simple inbox, Facebook has reinvented the “communication” experience. …. Facebook as a service is amazingly effective when it focuses all its attention on what is the second order of friends – people you would like to stay in touch with, but just don’t have enough bandwidth (time) to stay in touch with. Those who matter to you the most are infinitely intimate, and as a result you communicate with them via SMS, IM Chat and voice. So far, this intimate communication has eluded Facebook. The launch of the new social inbox is a first step by Facebook to get a grip on this real world intimacy.

In 2007, I had argued that the real social network in our lives was the address book on our mobile phone. Google has access to real-world intimacy – the mobile phone address book – thanks to Android OS. All it has to do is use that as a lever to facilitate interactions.

In order to understand Google’s interaction-driven social future, one doesn’t have to look far: no further than Apple’s iTunes app store.  As you know, I have switched from BlackBerry to the iPhone, and as a result, I’ve been looking for a BBM replacement, and have been playing around with a score of apps.

In the process of searching for this app, I came across an app called Beluga, which essentially allows me to connect to my friends. And then I can create Pods (essentially Groups) with one or more of my friends. Sort of like what I did on BBM. Except, there’s more to Beluga.

It taps into my social graph (Facebook); it leverages my location, and it allows me to share photos as part of the messaging process. It’s a beautifully designed application that’s very inviting – and the experience is less communication, more interaction.

What’s beautiful about Beluga is it’s as personal and private as you want it to be. It’s just ironic that Beluga was co-founded by three Google engineers — Ben Davenport, Lucy Zhang and Jonathan Perlow — and if you see their bios, it is hardly a surprise that they ended up with an interaction-centric product like Beluga.

Yesterday, I was introduced to a new app called Yobongo, and it comes from a San Francisco startup co-founded by alumni of Justin.tv. It’s a good-looking application that leverages your location, allowing you to find people around you and to chat with them. It is at the extreme opposite of Beluga: It’s open, and you can chat with anyone. It is very real-time in nature. Of course, there are other apps like Yobongo: MessageParty, for example!

What’s common between these two apps is their ability for synchronous messaging. This messaging can, in turn, become the under-pinning of what I earlier called interactions.

Ability to interact on an ongoing basis anywhere, any time and sharing everything, from moments to emotions – is what social is all about. From my vantage point, this is what Google should focus on. If not — you know it very well — Facebook will.

App of the Day:

Beluga is a well-designed and simple-to-use mobile app that allows you to create group-based conversations. The app, which works on iOS and Android phones, allows you to sign up via Facebook and creates BlackBerry Messenger-style groups for synchronous messaging with friends. Beluga gives you the option to share your location and photos with your groups. You can invite your contacts via text message or emails. It’s worth downloading and using for private group communications.

What to read on the web:

[wufoo form=”z7m8z1″ username=”gigaom” height=”300″]

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