When Google threw a party at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last Wednesday, the question that seemed to bedevil the press and analysts gathered was, "Why is Google throwing a party at the Game Developers Conference?"
Officially, it was to formally announce the addition of new gamer-centric themes  for the iGoogle personal home page interface. Now iGoogle users can add official art from game makers like Activision and Electronic Arts to their Google home pages.
But the bigger news, from the event, hinted at Google taking on Facebook, in its move to add casual games to its OpenSocial platform.
Google's Vice President of Search Products and User Experience, Marissa Mayer , was on hand to introduce the product and moderate a small panel. She kicked off by touting the success of iGoogle, saying it had grown to "tens of millions of users."
While I don't doubt her quantitative acumen, in its vagueness the statement felt like reaching--after all, by nature of having an account with any Google service, a user has an iGoogle home page in theory, but not necessarily practice. Just because someone uses Gmail or Google Search, doesn't necessarily mean they start their day at iGoogle.
After RedOctane co-founder Charles Huang, Capcom producer Yoshinori Ono, and Electronic Arts VP Carolyn Feinstein were done chatting, the real news, besides the promotional partnerships being featured, was briefly introduced. Namely, casual games from third-party developers built atop Google's OpenSocial system, for integration within iGoogle and Orkut.
Zynga was on hand to show off one of its projects in development, a port of the Facebook application Mafia Wars to Google's service. Other names listed on the slide presented at the end of the talk before it quickly disappeared were RockYou, The New York Times and Electronic Arts.
This, of course, was the far more interesting revelation, because it clearly points at Google going after Facebook--and the third-party developers who develop applications for Facebook's platform.
Facebook came under fire from third-party developers for de-emphasizing widgets. It was a direct blow to the prospects of dozens of startups, some backed by millions from venture capital firms, who had built their business models around a splashy 2007 announcement by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
If Google could leverage its reach into expanding its own social graph through the OpenSocial project, and give frustrated widgetmakers another platform on which to build, it opens a new front of competition against the Palo Alto upstart that has poached so many of Google's executives and engineers.
Of course, Facebook has just gone through another redesign  which as proven just as controversial--de-emphasizing much of Facebook itself beyond the status update feed, only to reconsider the design after members uproared. The hastily assembled event might indicate that Google is looking to capitalize on that user dissatisfaction.
If Google were to extend iGoogle to become a hub for a social network--which, through Gmail, Gchat, Calendar, and Contacts it certainly seems to be doing--it begins to look a lot like Facebook. And it answers the question as to why so much seems to be invested in iGoogle themes.
After all, one doesn't need to be reminded of their own love for Blizzard's World of Warcraft with a banner graphic. It's much more compelling as an indicator to others of personal interests.
Mayer is eager for the love of end users, a position that Zuckerberg has been distancing himself from. If Google were to essentially make iGoogle in the image of Facebook landing pages past, it might be able to make the "tens of millions" claim a reality by picking up users and developers increasingly frustrated with Zuckerberg's dictatorial whimsy.
Then again, in talking to the security guard who was moonlighting for some extra cash, the event wasn't as well attended as expected. Maybe more prophetically, it also started half an hour late.