For all of Google’s successes, the company has an underwhelming track record when it comes to social networks. Time after time, its attempts have been met with shrugs or downright hostility. An early offering called Orkut languished in obscurity (unless you live in Brazil). Wave, a real-time messaging system, proved too confusing for most users. Last year saw the release of Buzz, an attempt to build a social network based on users’ Gmail contacts. It was introduced with much fanfare and seemed to be Google’s best opportunity to dispel the critique that social wasn’t in its DNA.
But Buzz was an embarrassing debacle. The service publicized users’ contacts without asking permission, causing customers and critics to recoil. Though Google addressed those problems, the initial taint stuck; Buzz is technically still Buzzing, but the service is nowhere near the social powerhouse the company had envisioned. Worse, its initial flaws led to a rebuke from the Federal Trade Commission. Ultimately, Google agreed to submit to privacy oversight for the next 20 years.
Now Google is back with Google+, a new and even more ambitious social service. Fifteen months in the making, the sweeping initiative attempts to make sharing and communicating an integral part of Google’s entire array of offerings—search, Gmail, YouTube, Maps, and so on. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, where every update usually gets shared with everyone, Google+ makes it easy to direct messages to specific groups of people, thanks to its now-celebrated Circles feature. In addition to its Facebook-like stream of updates from friends, family, and colleagues, Google+ also includes an “interest stream”—called Sparks—with shareable items automatically culled from the Net that pertain to your favorite topics. Another feature, Hangouts, lets users instantly create a videoconference with up to 10 friends.
Ever conscious of its past failings, the Googlers had braced for a skeptical reception when Google+ was introduced as a “field test” in June. Instead, it was met with unbridled enthusiasm. “We knew pretty quickly that we were onto something,” says Vic Gundotra, Google’s senior vice president of social initiatives. “It was just amazing to see the activity.” A few weeks later, Google announced that 10 million people had signed up for the service. By August, estimates pegged the Google+ population at about 20 million. (Google wasn’t saying.)
The positive response was sweet vindication for Bradley Horowitz, Google’s vice president of products. As head of Buzz, he had seen firsthand how a social product launch could go horribly awry, and as a lead developer on Google+, he was keen to avoid repeating those mistakes. But Horowitz—an MIT Media Lab alum and former rock guitarist and Yahoo executive—says his team isn’t taking any victory laps yet. (Compared with Facebook’s global carnival of 750 million users, Google+ is just a sideshow off the midway.) But although the service is still being developed, Horowitz says it could eventually transform the whole company. We sat down with him to ask how.
Wired: What was the launch like?
Horowitz: It’s a bit of a blur. We’d spent a lot of time inoculating the team against the inevitable sniping. Then we got this really positive response. But the sugar can be a lot more insidious than the vinegar. It’s harder to ignore, and you can start believing the hype. So we just encouraged everyone to put blinders on and stay focused on the long term.