Tuesday 12 July 2011

Google+ doesn't want to take Facebook's current followers, it's their future ones it's after...

So Google+ is a couple of weeks old and having initially only let a few people into the circle (apologies for the in-joke so early in the post), it appears that the doors have been left a little further ajar and there is a steady trickle of users into the network that is far outpaced by the comments, blogs and articles about it.

Based on my first tentative steps into Google+, it does look like it is generally the tech-leader types that are heading onto it first - checking out how it compares to Facebook and the like.  How fast, or indeed, how far it will proliferate into the masses it to be seen.  Certainly early indications are that it is a bit of a slow burn - applying the Bedford Test, I posted a question on Facebook about it and didn't exactly get a resounding response.

So what are the chances that G+ will head into obscurity the way of Buzz and Wave?

Well, the challenge with any new social network is that unless it reaches a tipping point of users it is destined to fail...  I've recently been reading an anthology of mathematical curiosities written by one of my old Maths professors from the University of WarwickIan Stewart.  Amongst other things, he discusses Conway's Game of Life, in which, given an opening state, a series of rules define how a two dimensional grid of cells behaves over time and generations.  Some reach a steady state;  some grow, produce offshoots and even move;  whilst others simply fade and die.  Such as it is with social networks - and in this world, the odds are even further affected by one thing.  Facebook.

Both Wave and Buzz are potentially good ideas that struggled to achieve anything approaching a critical mass of users.  But if the figure that I saw recently of 750 million active users is accurate, you'd go a long way to compete with Facebook and as we've seen with Bebo and MySpace - if you don't compete, you fail.  But there are exceptions to that rule.  For example, Foursquare has reached 10 million users (I would love to see the active number mind) - but the differentiator here is the nature of the product.  Foursquare is specifically location based, it's very single-minded in its proposition.

So has G+ bitten off more than it can chew in trying to stand toe-to-toe with Facebook?

And have I mixed too many metaphors in that question...?  On both, there are certainly good reasons to think so, a good proportion of the Facebook user base are habitual users and maintaining two social networks is more of a pain than most would be prepared to put up with.  Given a straight choice between the two, I suspect that G+ would struggle to lure over more that 10% of the active users of Facebook.  At a general level, whilst the reviews of G+ are pretty favourable (given it's early days at least), it is very similar to Facebook.  However, there are some nice features that are clearly learnings from some of the issues of Facebook, and it takes a more open (and Twitter-like) approach to building your network and "circles".  But are these enough to make a user stop using Facebook in order to move over to G+?  And of course, that is assuming that a sufficient number of their 'friends' do the same too!  For some that are increasingly tired of Facebook, maybe yes.  But en masse?  I'm not convinced - at least not initially...

And that, I think, is the key point.  Google+ may be more of a medium/long term play.  And I also think that Android will be Google's MVP.

Google recently announced that they are activating half a million Android devices each day.  That is a big number, and it's growing 4.4% each week.  Then there is the troubles that RIM is suffering, and the continued growth of smartphone penetration that is resulting in a significant emerging market - the teen and young adult audience, that are active social networkers and a ripe demographic for mid-range smartphones.

And that is where Android comes in.  

I am continually amazed when I consider that Google has gone so far as to develop a leading mobile operating system and other technologies such as Goggles and Translate based purely on driving advertising revenue.  It's all about data and platforms for delivering advertising (be that display or search).  It really does fascinate me.

But anyway... if RIM can achieve what it did in terms of gaining traction amongst a younger, non-corporate, audience as it did based purely on BBM then think what leverage Google+ could have amongst so fertile an audience.  These are the next generation of social networkers, those that may use Facebook, but whose usage of it is not ingrained, and equally use IM, SMS and BBM to communicate.  By pre-installing the Google+ app on all Android devices and prompting sign-up when the device is activated (for which I have been aware of seriously impressive opt-in figures for something similar previously) there is a ready-made user base.  

500k activations a day and rising?  Just 10%-20% of that would soon see the registered user count approaching something near critical mass wouldn't it?

And so Google+ does feel different to me.  It feels like it may be a little more thought through in terms of features and functionality;  it feels like there is a clearer route to achieving a critical mass of users and hitting that tipping point;  and it also feels like it may just be the right time.

We shall see of course - and we'll probably do so pretty soon - but I feel the runes are good.  

However, just a quick word of caution, Facebook has long had to face complaints about the way that they implement changes to the platform, their attitude towards user privacy and their ownership of "your" data.  I for one don't imagine that it will be any different for Google who have, of course, faced similar accusations in the past themselves.  Remember, pretty much anything Google does is about driving advertising revenue - and running your social network is a pretty good way of knowing just about all that they would need to...