Category Archives: google

Google+: Better than Buzz and Wave, but no Facebook Killer

So I finally got in to test out Google+, and I have to say it’s definitely an interesting product.  I can’t dismiss it the way I did with Google Wave.  Here are some of my first impressions:

Circles

Adding friends to your Circles starts out fun but quickly becomes a daunting task.  G+ appears to use my Gmail account history to suggest people that I might want to add to my Circles, which is convenient, but regular Gmail users like myself may end up with an overwhelming number of recommendations.

I have 500 recommendations (presumably this is a maximum), and I just don’t want to take the time to sort them all into Circles. Maybe I’ll whittle away at it over time…I stopped after 40 friends because it’s just too tedious.  This is why the Friend Lists never took off over at Facebook, but I don’t think it’s a good sign that Google hasn’t really improved upon the concept aside from slapping a nifty UI on it.

It’s not immediately clear that people whom you add to your Circles will receive an email notification.  I added several people whom I’m not close to, but I just wanted to follow their updates (like Twitter), and they may be rather confused when they see that I’ve added them on G+.  Google needs to work a little on this process to make it more clear what’s going on, and what the consequences of your actions are.

The Stream

In “The Stream” (like Facebook’s Feed), you can see updates from anyone whom you’ve added to your Circles, without them having to approve you as a friend (although they are notified, and can Hide or Block you after the fact.)  This makes G+ work a little like Twitter, actually – you can have a 1-way relationship, more of a “follow” than a “friend,” but you still need to know someone’s email address in order to “follow” them, so don’t expect many celebs to be joining up or ditching Twitter for this.

Using 1-way relationships is a very interesting product decision, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.  It’s possible that people may develop a Twitter-like usage pattern, where they follow a lot of people that they don’t know, particularly in business circles.  For instance, if you can get the email addresses of people in your industry, you can just start following their G+ updates, but of course you’ll only see content those people make public unless they add you to one of their Circles and publish to that Circle.

If you add someone to your Circle who isn’t using G+, they’ll get your updates via email, which is either an awful idea or a fantastic one: if you don’t have G+, you’ll get your inbox spammed by your friends who do, so that could motivate more people to join, or it could just annoy them.  Maybe both. It’s a little risky, but if people surrender and sign up for G+, it’ll be a big win for Goog.

Update: I received this via IM from a friend today:

why is google+ spamming me when they know I’m not a member and I can’t join? load of crock

One side effect I noticed: I’m hesitant to share things with my Circles, because I don’t want my friends who aren’t on G+ to get emails for every little thing I share.  It’s okay on Facebook because people are already there, and if they happen to see my update, that’s cool, but most things I post to Facebook, I do NOT want to send to my friends via email, or I would have done that in the first place.  Once all my friends are on G+, it’s not an issue, but that’s a long ways off.  Until then, I may have to “unfriend” my contacts who are not on G+ just to avoid spamming them, or I’ll have to post things as “Public” without posting to a Circle.

The Toolbar

Once you’re on Google+, you’ll see a toolbar on any of the common Google sites you go to – Gmail, search, Docs, Picasa, etc.  There’s a “Share” button at the right of the bar, so you can easily add things to your Stream from any of those sites.  A smart move, and it should kick start sharing.

G+ has some neat features, but I’m not sure how Google is trying to position it.  It appears to be a direct Facebook competitor, as I really can’t imagine myself using both for very long.  It’s just too much sharing, too much work to maintain friends lists, too much seeing what my friends are up to, and too much “hanging out.”

I really wanted to see Google tie their tools together as a part of G+.  All of Goog’s consumer tools still exist as independent entities, when most should be tied into one interface.  Picasa is tied in (to some extent), but Gmail and Calendar are totally separate still, which is unfortunate.  If Google could reposition G+ as the only site you need to go to for your daily communication needs, they’d have a leg up on Facebook which is struggling mightily to integrate email functionality. Hopefully they’ll move this way soon.

Hangouts

Hangouts are audio/video chat rooms. I suppose Google wanted to be clever by giving them a hip, in-your-face name, but it’s often rather confusing.  How’s this for clear product messaging: “Hangouts: Have fun with all your circles using your live webcam.”  Oy.  I started “hanging out” by myself, and it posted to my stream that “Joel Downs is hanging out.”  When I finished the experiment, it told my friends “Joel Downs hung out.”  I’m sure my friends were fascinated.  It’s even better than the inane Facebook Places updates like “Joel Downs is at Starbucks.”

Sparks

Sparks are interests.  You type in things you’re interested in, and Google recommends content for you.  I assume it’ll put recent recommendations in my stream, but I haven’t seen that yet.  It could be a nice way to keep on top of topics you’re interested in if it works well, akin to Google News Alerts or Yahoo’s Alerts.  We’ll see.  Why does Goog call them “Sparks”?  I have no idea.  They definitely built in a bit of a learning curve.

Other Stuff

I won’t cover the Photos or Profile today…neither section seems particularly robust or different.

Summary

Google has a good product here, but so far I think it’s too little too late.  Google+ just isn’t well differentiated from Facebook, and it certainly isn’t any easier to use, in fact, the terminology alone may relegate its usage to a younger audience that digs the hipness and wants to spend the time to figure out how to use it.  It’s much more interesting and robust than Google Buzz was (not a high bar), but it’s hard to picture many people either 1) switching away from Facebook or 2) using both G+ and Facebook regularly.  My guess is that G+ will attract the same demographic as Gmail, but will have a hard time going beyond that.  Google will have to do some serious work to woo Facebook users, and they need to do it fast.

Google makes simplest homepage in the world hard to use

Google has been testing a new homepage lately that strips everything off the page except the search box and their logo.  That’s right, no “Google Search” button, no “I’m feeling lucky” button, no global navigation at the top, and no legalese at the bottom. Note: currently only some users see this new version of the homepage. And now, a week into the experiment, they’ve discovered that it’s freaking people out.  What do you do when you see a search box with no “Search” button next to it?  You probably wait a minute and wonder if the page is broken, right?  Is it still loading?  If you wait, will the button show up? So what does Google do when they see they’re confusing the heck out of people?  Rather than realizing that their old design was plenty intuitive already, they provide documentation explaining the new design.  One of the oldest rules of interface design (for simple features) is: “If you have to explain the interface, it’s too hard.” 500x_500x_firefoxscreensnapz1-thumb_08 But now, as noted by TechCrunch and Valleywag who found two different versions of the wrecked homepage, Google has included text below their floating search box to tell you that they’re actually doing this on purpose: “Hey everyone, despite how it looks, this page isn’t broken!”  Google: if you have to tell us the page isn’t broken, there’s something horribly wrong.

googfade

Google Wave’s Fatal Flaws

So I got my Google Wave invite a couple weeks ago.  I have been fairly skeptical of all the Wave hype lately, but I was still intrigued and very much looking forward to seeing what it had to offer.  I logged in, and…didn’t know what to do.  I felt like the first guy in the world to have email – it sounds like a cool idea, but there’s nothing to do until you know other people who have email, too.

Wave allows you to send invites out to 9 friends, so I sent some out.  And waited.  A week later, finally they started showing up, and I could really see what Wave had in store.

Wave is slick, and pretty, and for the most part fairly easy to start using, but it has too many flaws that will keep it out of the hands of mainstream users and limit its adoption to tech-savvy user groups.  My biggest issues with it are:

  • No email integration. This is supposed to be the communication tool for the next century, but it isn’t backwards compatible with the communication tool(s) for the last century.  Surely someone will write an extension to allow it to interface with email, but at that point you’ll lose all the cool Wave features, making the whole exercise moot.
  • Nothing to do until you know people who have it.  Adding an email extension would alleviate this.
  • Built by programmers, for programmers. As Lifehacker points out, “the first search command every Wave newbie needs to know (is): with:public” which will allow you to see public waves and is very useful when you have no friends using Wave yet. Really guys?  Resorting to cryptic command lines in a supposedly mainstream web app?  Let me guess, was this documented somewhere in your man pages?
  • No notifier application. If you’re not in Wave, there’s no way to know you have new Waves waiting for you.  There is a third-party app to do this, but it’s annoying that I have to have a notifier for my email and Wave.
  • Watching people type in real time. Internet “old-timers” will remember that the original tools for instant messaging over the Internet (like “talk”) worked like this.  Surprisingly, it’s not much fun to watch other people type and correct their own typos.  Really.  ICQ and AIM popularized the “wait until they’re done to send the message” model, and no one looked back (until Wave.)
  • Editing other people’s messages. If I want to collaborate on something with my friends, I’ll tell you.  Don’t just let other people edit my messages willy-nilly.  It’s fun for a few minutes to edit what your friends said, but threads can quickly become chaotic and impossible to follow.  There’s a reason message boards don’t have this feature.
  • Google Wave

    Click for larger image

    Un-novative thread presentation. In a giant leap back to 1997, Wavelets are organized by thread first and not by date.  This means that responses to any message within the wave get indented directly below that message rather than showing at the bottom of the Wave, so new messages end up located all over the place within the thread.  In long threads, you may have to scroll up and down for several pages to find the new messages.  For ‘net old-timers, you may remember that many of the first, primitive online forums were arranged like this, but somewhere along the lines everyone discovered that it was easier to follow a conversation by always posting new messages at the bottom and just quoting the message it was in response to.  It’s not as elegant from a purist perspective, but it’s much easier for the user to follow.

  • Replay. The only reasons the Replay feature needs to exist are 1) the flawed thread presentation mentioned above and 2) the fact that anyone on the thread can edit any message.  Using replay isn’t fun or interesting – it’s tedious, and it’s there to compensate for unintuitive UI and unnecessary features.
  • Worst offense: Too many things in one. Wave seemingly tries to replace your email, your IM, and your Google Docs, but doesn’t do a great job on any of them.  I much prefer using my IM client to talk to my friends, so I’m not giving that up.  Gmail is a better email client, and Google Docs and Spreadsheets are pretty great for collaboration, so I’m not giving those up. (Gmail and Docs already have messaging built-in, and it’s executed rather nicely, btw.)  By trying to do so much, it doesn’t do anything well.

I should have known we were in trouble when this was the first line of the “Getting Started” wave: A wave can be both a document and a conversation. For how many users would a statement like this make any kind of sense?  For someone like myself, that’s a pretty deep statement and worth some pondering, but how would that help my mom figure out what’s going on?

Wave is truly a technical marvel, and the fact that it works as well as it does is impressive.  It’s easy to see why the room full of developers at the Wave unveiling was in awe.  But, you must do more than impress developers to build a tool that the mass market will adopt.

Ultimately I think Wave will find some fans within tech-savvy organizations because it could be useful for collaboration and communication in situations where everyone in the company is using it (competing with Yammer), but it won’t gain any significant market penetration compared to email or IM.

Related posts:

Google Wave in the wild, almost

Google is releasing 100,000 invitations today to Google Wave, their next-generation communications tool that could replace email, IM, and collaboration software all in one shot.  I don’t have an invite yet, so…you can check out Lifehacker for a nice hands-on review.

My take on Google Wave from when it was announced

Google Sidewiki lets you help Google, for free!

sidewiki_logoGoogle today released a new version of their toolbar, including a sneaky little feature called Sidewiki that allows users to leave comments on any page on the web.  As noted by Techcrunch, it’s not an original idea; many others have tried this model, but none have succeeded.  Google has an advantage here because they are attaching the feature to their toolbar, which already has a significant userbase, but the idea still has significant challenges.

We know that people are generally motivated by fortune or fame, and Knol — Google’s last failed UGC attempt — offered fortune and fame, but failed anyways.  Sidewiki offers neither.  There’s no monetary aspect to Sidewiki at all, and you’ll only gain fame among the few other people who actually decide to turn their Sidewiki sidebar on for that particular page (Sidewiki comments only show up on the page they were added to, and do not show up across an entire site.)

So why would Google put this out there?  Because if anyone uses it at all, it gives them meta data to improve their web search.  Nothing helps Google classify a page more than text on or about a page, and by giving users one more venue to leave comments, they are looking to improve their ability to index and classify those pages.  PaidContent quotes Google’s product manager saying:

“It gives (people) a reason to come back to a page.  I’m sure some publishers will have some objections to something like this but (at the same time) many traditional publishers also objected to blogs.”

Firstly, publishers put comments on their sites “to give people a reason to come back,” so why do they need some parallel comment system that gives them no SEO benefit?  They’d be better off adding Disqus.  Second, how are blogs analogous to Sidewiki?  Sidewiki sits on the side of any page like a leech, taking conversation away from the actual page, while blogs are just independent publications that traditional publishers have no right to object to.  A more suitable analogy would be the framing of sites that publishers have objected to for years because they lose visibility into what people are saying about their site.

I’m not saying that publishers should protest this move, but it’s disingenuous of Google to position this as a service they’re providing for the betterment of the web.  They’re providing it to benefit themselves, just like the Google Image Labeler, which looks like a game but really powers Google’s image search, and their recent acquisition of Recaptcha which is a security tool that also happens to aid their book digitization efforts.

I tried out Sidewiki, and of course there isn’t much out there yet.  All I found was a self-proclaimed “Social Media Specialist” who provided a brief summary of CNN on CNN.com’s homepage.  If Google had provided the Wikipedia page for CNN, it would have been better.  Sidewiki would probably be more useful for the long tail pages of the web that could use some elaboration, but that’s exactly where it’s unlikely to be viewed because users have to explicitly open their Sidewiki window to look for comments that have been left.

I can see the system quickly becoming full of spam, self-promotion, and random chatter.  Google provides user ratings, saying it will help the good comments filter to the top, but 1) that will disrupt the order of responsive comments which are sure to arise and 2) it will be gamed because there are no moderators overseeing the system.  Wikis are powerful because they have moderators, and this system will fail in the long run because it has none.

To wrap up, I wouldn’t bother using Sidewiki – it will linger for a year or two like most of Google’s social media efforts, and when Google sees that the comments they are getting are spam and conversation, they’ll realize it’s not helping their index, and they’ll shut it down.

Yahoo finally understands the power of Mail, Google doesn’t

screenshot6Over the past few months, Yahoo has been quietly adding more and more features to their webmail solution, Yahoo Mail.  For three years (from the sidelines), I’ve been hoping they would do this, and finally it looks like they’re getting the message.  Perhaps it’s Carol Bartz’ leadership, I don’t know, but Yahoo is finally polishing and rebuilding the biggest weapon in their arsenal.

In the past few months, Yahoo Mail has added support for large attachments (via Drop.io), added various Facebook-like “apps” from companies like Evite, Flickr, and Paypal, and they acquired Xoopit to improve their photo sharing and sending abilities.  They even started allowing Facebook style “status casting” which is equivalent to the Facebook news feed, allowing people to keep track of what their friends and family are up to.

These moves show a new, long-overdue dedication to email.  Yahoo has 350 million email users worldwide, and they have finally realized that email is their Trojan horse that will let them cross-promote and upgrade users to all of their other media properties and services.  Everyone needs email, and very little innovation has happened in the email space in the last 15 years.  If Yahoo can innovate and make social networking and messaging readily accessible and imminently usable for their already enormous audience within an email context, they have a chance to create some major buzz and hold off the Facebooks of the world that are out to eat their lunch.  Just imagine if Facebook started offering actual email addresses – Yahoo would face a serious threat.  Yahoo already has massive reach, all they need to hold off Facebook are tools that let that massive audience connect with each other.

The biggest question I have is whether it is too late.  Gmail was integrated with its IM solution from Day 1, but Yahoo Mail still isn’t well tied to Yahoo Messenger.  Why weren’t my Yahoo Messenger contacts automatically added to my Mail address book so I can see my friends updates?  This is a huge oversight and has hamstrung adoption of the Yahoo news feeds and status updates, but I’m hopeful Yahoo will move to correct this.

Also interesting is that Yahoo is innovating on its email solution while Google is reinventing email entirely with Google Wave.  I haven’t had the chance to say this often, but Yahoo’s approach is right, and Google’s is wrong.  Google Wave is too innovative, too paradigm shifting to gain widespread adoption in the next few years, and unfortunately it’s the kind of product that isn’t worth anything until the people you’re communicating with use it too.  Yahoo, on the other hand, is innovating on email incrementally, making their interfaces more streamlined, and making ancillary features like attachments and photo sharing more native and intuitive.  If Yahoo can get the social piece right, too, they may start grabbing headlines with their features again rather than for their deal-making and constant games of executive musical chairs.

The real meaning of the Google OS (sans hype)

It’s always fun to see a trailblazing product get announced and then watch the press run around trying to figure out what it is, what it means, and why it’s important.  The latest occasion for this kind of tomfoolery is Google’s announcement yesterday of the Chrome OS.  Here’s my take on it:

What it is

Chrome OS is the Chrome browser plus a version of Linux that is built to run a single application: the Chrome browser.  The “applications” that run on Chrome OS are what we have traditionally thought of as web sites, pages, or services, things like Google, Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail, Delicious, or pretty much anything else that starts with http.  These include services like Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets.

What it isn’t

A traditional operating system.  You can’t install Photohop, MS Office, iTunes, Yahoo messenger, AIM, or any other OS-based application you’re used to.  If you want to play MP3s, you’ll have to find a site or service that will do that like Pandora or Orb.  If you want to IM, you’ll need a web-based IM like Meebo.  If you want to edit pictures, you’ll need a web-based photo editor like Aviary’s Phoenix.

What we don’t know

  • It’s unclear if Google will build hooks into Chrome to allow it to manipulate local files.
  • It’s also unclear how much access web applications would have to peripherals.  I don’t know if I can just plug it into an iPod, webcam, or external hard drive and have it work.  Google claims that Chrome apps would run on any standards compliant browser, and that functionality just isn’t part of the current browser model, so I’m guessing these peripherals would not work.

What it means

Chrome OS, at release, will be built primarily for netbooks.  It will let you boot the netbook quickly and browse the web within seconds.  It’s good for people who want access to the web anywhere and aren’t doing heavy-duty computing like hardcore PC games, Photoshop, or even complex Excel spreadhseets or Powerpoint presentations. It definitely isn’t going to be useful as a media center.

A netbook with Chrome OS is what used to be known as a thin client or a Network Computer, but with real graphics capabilities.  It’s meant for mobile computing, and it will only threaten Microsoft’s Windows OS in the ultra-portable netbook space for the foreseeable future.  Windows 7 need not worry.

As for the press’ coverage, it’s largely regurgitations of the Google Press Release with a dash of analysis and a double helping of “maybe it’ll be important…you decide.”  But then…we have TechCrunch, which is getting harder and harder to describe as a “news outlet.”

Today Michael Arrington brags about how he predicted the Google OS in September of ’08, despite the fact that rumors have been flying since at least ’06 admittedly without the “Chrome” moniker.  In his “prescient” article, he claims

Chrome is nothing less than a full on desktop operating system that will compete head on with Windows.

Not true at all.  As Google made clear in their latest announcement, Chrome OS will still require Linux as the traditional OS it runs on top of.  He goes on to grandly pronounce

Expect to see millions of web devices, even desktop web devices, in the coming years that completely strip out the Windows layer and use the browser as the only operating system the user needs.

Firstly, the browser still needs Linux, and let’s not forget our history – the pioneers of computing have been talking about the thin client since 1993 and the similar Network Computer since 1996, both of which follow the same model as the Google OS, so he wasn’t exactly going out on a limb there.  Why he felt the need to brag about his tardy prediction again today, I can’t say.

Certainly there are still questions to be answered about Chrome OS and I don’t think it will be a game changer in the next couple years, but it is a step forward in making mobile computing cheaper and more convenient.  We’ll still need our PC’s with real OS’s to do real work, but this could indeed take a big bite out MS’s dominance in the low-end PC market, particularly when wireless data plans become more affordable.  Of course, don’t expect MS to be silent – they’re working on their own browser-based OS as well.

Update: 3:19pm

By way of Valleywag (bravo VW), I noticed Dave Winer’s summation of the Chrome OS, and he almost gets it right.  He says:

Let’s be dispassionate. Before yesterday’s announcement: 1. Chrome ran on Linux. 2. Linux was an operating system. 3. Linux ran on netbooks.  However, most people want XP on their netbook, not Linux. That was true yesterday and it’s still true today.

I think this is mostly accurate, but I think Google is trying to create a different class of device that is actually different from today’s netbooks and therefore, it isn’t a question of Linux vs. XP.  A Chrome netbook will boot directly to a browser window, and everyone knows how to use a browser, so it avoids the typical Linux geekiness.  The fact that it only runs a browser clearly makes it much less feature rich than XP, but it’s also much faster and cheaper.  Maybe it needs a new name to signify its limited abilities – micro netbook or browserbook or something…but I agree with Dave that calling this an OS is really just a marketing maneuver.

Facebook should not be afraid of Google Wave…yet

Google today announced the impending release of their new…product, Google Wave.  I hesitate when describing it, because it’s actually pretty tough to categorize.  Techcrunch has a thorough writeup of the functionality and Mashable has a brief of their own, but neither does much analysis, so let me try to summarize.

Google Wave is:

  • Like email, but won’t work (navtively) with existing email
  • Like IM, but it isn’t an application
  • Like Facebook messaging, but without Facebook
  • Like Facebook’s application platform, but without Facebook
  • Like Twitter, but without a public-facing feed
  • Like IRC, but less temporal

Does that help?  Maybe not.

Let me try to sum it up in a positioning statement that I’m making up based on the proposed featureset:

Google Wave is a web-based messaging system that helps people communicate, share, and collaborate with friends, family, and business contacts both in real-time and asynchronously.

If we look at it in these terms, Google Wave is not only extremely ambitious but is also set squarely against Facebook.

You may consider this comparison invalid because Google Wave has so many features that Facebook doesn’t and Facebook has a ton of features that Wave doesn’t, but users don’t look at features, they look at problems the product solves for them.  Is it filling a need that isn’t met right now, or is it filling the need better than existing services?  It’s unlikely that people would give up Facebook for Wave, so the question for Google comes down to: will they use both? You can ask the same question about Wave vs. email, IM, and Twitter.

In order to think Wave will be successful, you have to think the problems it solves are important.  Here are some of the problems it purports to address:

This is just a start of what they want it to do.  One of the creators, Lars, said of Wave,

“My vision is to have the one communication tool. I want all the use cases to be covered. We made up ideas of what Wave could be used for — negotiating contracts, writing articles. Lots of things.”

Is it trying to do too much?  Very likely.

I fear that Wave breaks one of Google’s own product development tenets: fail often, fail early (or maybe fail early, fail often, I don’t remember, but I know there was a lot of failing involved.)  This project has been in development since 2007 and has 50 developers working on it, and it already has a plethora of what we product managers call “would-be-nice” features.  I encourage Google to make sure the core features work and release this thing as soon as possible to see if people like it at all.  If they like it, THEN add the silly extras like real-time wiki-style collaborative editing that lets you see what other people type as they type it.

I do like the concept behind Wave in how it aims to unify communication, but I want to see that happen in a way that simplifies my life.  Read through the comments on the TechCrunch article, and you’ll see that most people think it looks too complicated.  As a contrast, no one who saw the iPod or iPhone unveilings thought either device would complicate their lives – they are both beautiful in their simplicity, and that’s why they sell by the boatloads.  Google will have an uphill battle marketing this product until they can show an average user how it will simplify their lives. If they clear this hurdle, Facebook needs to watch out.