Fast Company

Google's Success in Facebook Game: Handicapping the Odds

Google Places

Google's on the defensive over Facebook's new Places location-based feature, and is preparing the ground for its rumored social network, Me. But will it falter, because the components Google's already built haven't thrilled customers?

Former head of Google's mobile unit, Vic Gundotra, posted a spicy blog message yesterday to note that over 100 million Google users check places on Google maps, lots use Google's MyLocation feature (that lets you track your position even in the absence of GPS), many people love Latitude on Android--the Google "checkin" and friend-tracker app, as well as Place Pages which adds extra local info to locations in Latitude, such as photos or reviews. In the immediate aftermath of the roll-out of Facebook's Places application, it's obvious what Gundotra was trying to do: He was engaging in a little feisty PR along the lines of "But Google lets you do all that stuff already, and millions of folk have been using it for years!"

There are a number of problems with this stance, and they shed a dim and unfriendly light on the future of the rumored Google social network dubbed "Me." First up, Gundotra's post smacks of playground politics--the kind of false-logic arguments that you'll hear kids using at lunch hour. Gundotra's highlighting the wrong things. If you need to defend your existing products in this way, it implies you've got nothing new and innovative to bring to the table to compete with the upstart newcomer--Facebook. Secondly, many industry commenters said exactly this sort of thing when the original iPod came out--noting that Apple had come up with nothing new, nothing that wasn't already done by someone else, often in some ways better. This argument entirely misses the point: The new thing about the iPod was the neat synthesis of package, performance, and ecosystem, wrapping a commodity item--the MP3 player--in a neat, brand-heavy wrapper that made it an identifiable item that was pretty and, above all, easy to use. Apple's just done exactly the same thing for tablet PCs too, and Facebook is trying to do something similar for location-based gaming.

But the biggest problem Gundotra inadvertently highlighted is that (with the admitted exception of Android, which is a strong offering that stands alone) Google's users tend to think of its services as a commodity. Sure, you may use Google Maps to work out where you're going or where you are ... but if there were a different system pre-installed on your iPhone, perhaps from a more identifiable "navigation" brand like TomTom or Navigon, then you'd probably use that instead--especially if it looked sweet, and was fun to use (accusations you can rarely level at a Google product). Google's Buzz social network failed because it wasn't easy to use, looked confusing, and was wrapped up in the usual Google UI so it never stood out--not in the way Twitter does when you use a third party app to access it, or Facebook does when you surf to its website. Even the way Google's new products are introduced to the public is pretty low-fi, with little fanfare, polished PR effort, or strong individual product branding.

Google's already got the major pieces in place to make a Facebook-rivaling social network, including location-based services. But if it doesn't make Me stand out from its other Google-esque offerings, then it's future doesn't seem all that bright.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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