Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Buzz About Google Buzz

Google's Social Foray

Be forewarned: I have to talk about a lot of Google news today. They just dominated the media last week - there's no getting around it.

At the center of it all is Google Buzz, which has clearly attracted at least the amount of attention as the iPad from the tech community. Compared to most other Google launches, except for Wave, the amount of buzz it has gotten is kind of uncharacteristic of a new Google product. I don't think it's quite the buzz that Google wanted though.

So what is Google Buzz? Simply put, it's Google's take on social networking. It's a tab in your Gmail account that lets you connect with your friends as they interact on a number of services including Twitter, Picasa, YouTube, Blogspot, Google talk, Google Reader, and Flickr. It basically gives you a feed of the people you follow ala Facebook and lets you update also kind of like on Facebook where you can say stuff or post a link or photo. You also get some finer controls on privacy. Their vision for this is a little bigger than what you see in your web browser though since you can have a Buzz layer on Google Maps to see where your friends are (I guess like Latitude but on speed?), and the mobile apps do voice recognition. If you're on webOS though you're out of luck - Google didn't show any love for Palm.

Why would you want this thing? Well, Google is selling it on the premise that it hooks into your Gmail so if you're on Gmail then you get it for free and it just gives you the stuff you care about, but I don't know how it figures out what you care about unless it strictly bases that off when you click to "like" stuff. In my opinion, it's kind of silly and unnecessary. And I'm definitely not alone in that camp. For one thing, it doesn't really add any value except for the Google Maps layer, which I can't vouch for and is something you can kind of already do with Latitude and Foursquare. I can understand that Google doesn't want to get left in the dust with social networking (as they've already shown with domestic failures Orkut and Dodgeball), but this isn't really great timing for it. My running opinion of technology is that it should solve a problem or fill a need, but I don't think this does either.

To make matters worse, there have been serious privacy concerns called to attention. For example, the default when it launched was that the people you followed was public and you were auto-following a bunch of people from your Gmail contact list, so this was basically revealing part of your address book to the world. They've fixed that, but as CNet aptly puts it, using Buzz is still kind of awkward and not compelling.

The most insightful thoughts on Buzz though, in my opinion, have come from Digg co-founder and Internet celebrity Kevin Rose. In a nutshell, he believes part of the intent of Google Buzz is to hook directly into Google Search and provide real-time relevancy for up-and-coming sites and news articles. While Digg already does a great job of people-driven news promotion, Google Buzz is a wider base, is intended to be as easy to interact with as Twitter, and provides data that other sites can farm to improve what they do, assuming your feed on Buzz is public. This theory is actually further supported but Google's acquisition of social search service Aardvark, which lets you pose natural questions to real people in your social network so you can get real answers instead of having to search for information yourself. In the end, it all ends in beefing up Google Search. Of course, that's just one theory though.

I don't think it's fair to write off Google Buzz already. It's not that exciting right now, but this is Google we're talking about. They tend to not settle for developing mediocre products. Plus, sometimes these things just take a while to catch on. Facebook and Twitter didn't get so big overnight.

Google Broadband

While we're talking about Google let's move on to something that's actually much cooler than Buzz. They're planning on building an ultra high speed broadband network with speeds up to 1Gbps (which is probably 150x faster than what you have right now) at competitive prices. I'm totally salivating at this idea. They're only going to test it out in a few markets to start out with for 50,000 to 500,000 people. Google claims that their interest in doing this is to test out applications that would need lots of bandwidth to perform well. Still no idea what markets they're looking into, but this is the kind of competition we really need in the broadband market. Verizon is the only company out there really pushing the envelope on a large scale and it's all kinds of exciting that Google is taking an interest simply because they have enough resources to actually compete. Even if they end up canning the program, if they get Comcast and Time Warner to wake up and try to provide better products then it'll be a success in and of itself.

Is Google Killing Startups?

This is a really interesting story that I'm really at odds with. Business Insider has an editorial up claiming that every engineer Google snatches up is a missed opportunity for a startup. They would probably include a couple of other companies hypothetically, but the most obvious example is Google. Ultimately, the security blanket of these larger companies is bringing in top talent rather than a market where people have to be entrepreneurs and create their own jobs.

The thing is, most startups don't succeed. It's an extremely risky venture and I vehemently protest that idea that any developer has the chops to start their own company. It's like when the government said that anyone is entitled to a house even if they can't afford it. Starting a company is hard work and requires a certain type of person, and not every developer that goes to Google has that even though they're really smart and work great as a cog in a much larger machine. I love that the US is a place that encourages entrepreneurial spirit and I'm not disputing the value of startups at all, but I don't think Google is killing them. I've heard plenty of stories of people leaving places like Google and Microsoft to start their own company. The experience they got in a larger company ends up being invaluable to their venture. Not everyone can come out of school and go straight into creating a startup because not everyone is Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but more people definitely can after being in the industry for a while and learning from the brilliant people out there, who have tremendous influence on the industry by impacting these individuals at places like Google.

If you want to blame anyone blame our country's educational system for its failings in properly promoting science and technology, and cutting back on scholarships. I don't know who this guy has been talking to, but the talent pool is definitely limited out there compared to the positions available within computer science. I do think it makes sense, however, having entrepreneurs go to schools and teach them about starting a company so that they have that option, but I don't think it's productive to call Google the bad guy in this situation.

Google Stands Up to Australian Censorship

See? I told you it was a ton of Google news. It happens sometimes.

Let me sneak in an only slightly related piece of YouTube news: they've created a safety mode to help filter out objectionable content, presumably so YouTube can be whitelisted for educational uses and even children's use at home (or adults' use in the office).

The real provocative story is that Google is refusing requests for censorship on YouTube from the Australian government. This may be part of the motivation behind their threat to pull out of China: their censorship cessions have opened a Pandora's box of requests for them to censor elsewhere. What you really have to consider is what an impact Google can make in these countries. I'm not a Google fanboy, mind you, but I think they could have the power to change things in some of these countries. Right now, the requests that the Australian government are making are due to their self-interest rather than law, and Google has pledged to abide by the laws in the countries it's in. If Australia decides to change their law and Google refuses, what happens? If Google pulls out, will people get really upset and question their government's censorship? I'd hope so, but it's a hard thing to measure.

The Last Bits

What a terrible pun. Wow. Anyway, just a few quick stories before I sign off and get back to playing some guitar - my V-day treat to me.

A new Russian crimeware called Spy Eye has an option to remove competitor Zeus software from the users machine, along with stealing banking credentials. The intent of the program is to create Trojan horses so the person who installed it had it coming, but just a funny way to try to kill off a rival.

AOL has integrated Facebook Chat with AIM. Do people really use Facebook Chat on a regular basis?

Google Maps has added 9 new experimental features including rotatable maps and aerial imagery. Very nifty stuff!

The founder of 4chan, the least well-known gigantic cultural influence in the world, spoke at TED. Very interesting talk about privacy.

Google Street View did Whistler! Check out this sucker:

Have a great week everyone!

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