Google’s code may be elegant, but the company itself has never exactly been stylish. The smooth-panning legibility of Maps was a revelation when it launched, and Andy Hertzfeld’s user interface for Google+’s Circles is pretty fun. For the most part, though, Google has paired its data with an austere web front-end, and left it to third-party developers to abstract, remix and pretty it up. Two new stories speak to different strategies Google’s using to close this gap.
Google’s finally unwrapped the first public iteration of an application programming interface, or API, for Google+. APIs let software programs and services talk to each other, pulling or pushing data between the two. Every Twitter client or integrated service uses Twitter’s published APIs. Now these and other developers can make use of similar kinds of data from Google’s new social network.
To be clear, they can’t use all of it. For now, Google+’s API is limited to public posts and data only. Applications can also use the open authentication OAuth 2 to allow users to identify themselves on Google+ rather than using the long numerical identifiers and authorize each app.
However, because Google+’s API is limited to public data, you can’t really build a full-featured Google+ or Universal Social Media client around it yet. We’ll probably see a lot of news skimmers, some simple integration with location, check-in, or commenting services, and a handful of somewhat more developed app prototypes. In the very near future, the API gives developers a chance to play around. For Google, it gradually and gracefully extends the overall reach of the platform. It also helps the company see possibilities it may have missed in its own development.
A social news reader like Flipboard, for example, might use the API to pull links and media shared on Google+ and redisplay them in its own stylish interface, as it’s already done with Twitter, Flickr, Google Reader and others. In fact, Google likes this particular idea so much — Google reportedly tried to buy Flipboard last year and was turned down — that it would like to carve off a chunk of that business for itself.
“I heard from someone working with Google that Google is working on a Flipboard competitor for both Android and iPad,” writes Rackspace man-about-the-internet Robert Scoble — on Google+, naturally. “My source says that the versions he’s seen so far are mind-blowing good,” he adds.
Kara Swisher at AllThingsD has confirmed the story and given Google’s Flipboard-esque project a name: Propeller.
“Propeller is a souped-up version of similar reader apps such as Flipboard,” Swisher writes, plus “AOL’s Editions, Yahoo’s Livestand, Zite (which was just bought by Time Warner’s CNN) and Pulse.” The project is reportedly being developed as part of a new group of social-driven apps and services, and takes aim at Facebook as much as Flipboard. Facebook acquired the well-regarded e-reader startup Push Pop in part to jump-start its efforts to create a similarly design-optimized social news/media-browser.
There are two pieces to these kinds of “social magazine” applications. On the one hand, there’s generating and/or scraping and aggregating the raw data, pulling out what’s relevant and discarding what isn’t. It’s safe to assume that Google knows how to do this and would do it very, very well. After all, it’s the core of their business, in search and everywhere else.
But on the other hand, there’s the user interface. This may vary from task to task, device to device, or one implementation to the next. If the UIs for Google Reader, Facebook, Twitter, etc. were perfectly satisfactory in every case, it’s hard to imagine we’d have one aggregator company as successful and attractive to investors as Flipboard’s been, let alone an entire fleet of them.
Design is premium on tablets, and even Google’s best-looking desktop and smartphone apps don’t please everyone. Let’s hope Hertzfeld, or whomever Google taps to overhaul these products, can cook up something as elegant on the outside as the code is inside.