Google yesterday unveiled what may become its most significant launch in several years in the shape of Google Buzz. But what is it and how might it shape the the next few years of online media?
What is it? – It is essentially the company’s attempt to build a social network. It has worked in this space before and even bought start ups that use social networking technology, but Buzz is its most realised attempt to deliver a rival to Facebook, Twitter et al
So what does it do – At its heart Buzz is a stream of status updates, pictures, links, and videos from your friends. Imagine a rich media version of Twitter or Facebook and you are not far off. In many respects it isn’t unlike FriendFeed the social networking aggregator (which pulled together people’s online activity into one feed) which was bought by Facebook last year. If you use Flickr, Picasa, Google Reader, or Twitter you can incorporate that content into your Buzz. Interestingly, however, you can’t post an update to Twitter via Buzz, though Google says that feature is coming soon. To set Buzz up you chose who you want to follow from your Gmail contacts – it will suggest people to follow from who you email the most. The tricky party you’ll have will be weeding out your work colleagues from your friends. You can also have private or public buzzes. The plan is to also have buzzes for enterprise and educational users. In those cases, public buzzes may only be available within your company, while private would be private to other individuals in your network. Compare this with the much simpler Twitter which gives you a public account and lets anyone read your tweets.
But do we really need another social network? – In some respects no. Facebook and Twitter are hugely successful and both are still growing. Google is obviously very concerned that is missing out user’s content creation, both from a monetary point of view – the more pages it generates the more places it has for its very successful advertising – and also from as search point of view. It is hard for Google to track live updates from Twitter and impossible to search Facebook status updates. If Google Buzz is successful it will mean it has control over a huge new wave of content which will be easy to search.
Why would anyone use it though? – The genius part is that Buzz is being built into Gmail. Gmail users will in the next few days find a buzz tab underneath their inbox tab for them to explore. This means Buzz starts with a potentially huge installed base of over 176 million users. To put that in context Twitter has around 80 million users, so if over half of Gmail’s users try Buzz it will instantly have a larger base than Twitter.
Does it work on mobiles? – In some respects Buzz is as much about the mobile space as it is about the web. It works seamlessly with Google’s Android phone system, but is also compatible with the iPhone and other phone platforms. The idea is that you tag your posts to certain real life places, a little like the hot new start up Foursquare. So for example you’ll be able to see all the buzzes about a certain place like a restaurant and find out whether others think the food they sell is any good.
Does it have any weaknesses? – Firstly while it will work well for existing Gmail customers it probably won’t attract many new customer to Gmail so its growth may be slow. Still with that huge installed base it will have access to a lot of content already. Secondly Buzz sends comments on your status update straight to your email which won’t please people who are already managing huge amounts of mail.