In James Cameron's 1991 blockbuster "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" Skynet (a computer system so powerful that it becomes self-aware and turns on the human species when its operators decide to deactivate it) sends the T-1000 (an awesome yet deadly robot) to kill John Connor (the leader of the human resistance which, in that point in time, is an arrogant and sometimes devious young teen) to ensure its perennity.
Much like Skynet, Google (as an aggregate of all software and services provided by Google inc.) is a one of a kind computer system, possibly one of the largest, most advanced and most sophisticated created by man. Much like the T-1000, Android is an awesome piece of technology; and to be quite frank, one I'm going to continue investing time in. And much like John Connor, Facebook is young and full of promise, yet doesn't always get things "right" the first time.
And, if you hadn't guessed it by now, the question that's burning my mind is whether Google is trying to have Android kill Facebook? Because much like Skynet vis-a-vis Connor, all signs point to the fact that Google's top brass see Facebook as an existential threat and will likely stop at nothing to fend it off.
Now is probably a good time to ask yourself why my hunch is that Google might just use Android, of all things, as a T-1000 againt Facebook. Let me explain ...
Google's central problem is that users' habits have changed. As is well explained by Om Malik, apps obviate users' need for search (a point underscored by Steve Jobs in his D8 appearance) and social networks ensure that information permeates to its consumer automagically. In other words, search and "trivial" aggregation are no longer the main application. That's an issue because if Google is no longer your starting point (and it's no longer mine: I used to browse Google news every morning, I now start my day on TweetDeck) then not only is its ability to grow hindered but, even more fundamentally, its footprint will shrink. If I were in either Larry or Sergey's shoes, footprint shrinkage would send shivers down my spine -- but I'm not and they could have a different take. Still, if its footprint starts shrinking, Google is no longer the cool company coming up with all the bleeding edge stuff. It then becomes *permanently* confined to the one trick it does well: search. And *that* means the fun times are over. And maybe the trickle of key personnel leaving Google for other startups, Facebook included, is a sign that this is becoming clear for some on the inside.
Basically, Google *must* be part of the app and social worlds.
On the app side things look relatively ok. While the Android Market isn't yet where Apple's AppStore is, it's still keeping Google very much in the game. There are, in fact, very few other mobile app stores out there even close. So on the app front Google just needs to keep on at it. While unlikely to become the only mobile platform out there, it can very likely grab a decent share and, therefore, its apps will always cover at least a visible portion of the market.
On the social front, however, Google is nowhere near Facebook. None of its social acquisitions have mushroomed and its initiatives don't seem to be taking off; witness the backlash on buzz and the closing of Wave. In fact, it's so far behind that some question whether it can actually make up the lost terrain. Of course if you're in Google's management you've got no time to loose with pundits' hand-waving. Your question would be: how do we become a dominant social network player, NOW?
And that is very much a go-to-market issue. Because technology-wise, I don't think anyone doubts Google's engineers' prowess. So, therefore, given new social product foo (Google Me?), how does Google ensure that: a) it spreads through the market AND b) beats established players.
The venues here are rather limited, even more so given the urgency of starting to land body blows against Facebook ASAP.
Let's go for the easy one first: is there pent-up demand for a new social network? I don't think so. Facebook has passed 500M users. I can't see a reason why any of those would have a need so great that it would justify the pain of switching to something new where all their existing friends won't be.
Is there pent-up demand for a new type of social network? Maybe. Top researchers at Google seem to think so and I agree with them. BUT, would this justify quitting Facebook for a user? I don't think so, though you might convince a user to use something built on top of his Facebook account. But then if Google can do it, so too can Facebook. So I don't see how they can win here either.
Can Google tap into an existing source of users? That would, at least, give Google the advantage of not having to convince them of switching from Facebook. They would get the new “social Google” as part of something else they're already getting from Google. Well, it turns out that the choices here are fairly limited. As far as I can see, Gmail would have been the prime candidate and they've tried pushing Buzz there. It got a lukewarm reception and certainly doesn't seem to have generated the desired uptake. I, for one, have no plans of dropping Twitter in favor of Buzz, despite being a Gmail user. In fact I keep going back to it trying to see exactly what Buzz does (why should I use it) every so often and I can't figure out what needs it answers. My personal opinions and choices aside, chances are that the Gmail route has been written off by Google's management as the preferred route to the Facebook kill.
So then, is there something else going on at Google that is rapidly spreading, where Google has far more leverage than Facebook and that could be used as a platform for “transparently” pushing a social platform in a Google-friendly packaging? Well yes, it's called Android and it's now spreading at the rate of 200,000 activations PER DAY. Now bare in mind the following:
There is likely only one thing people do more than talk with their friends on Facebook: talk to them and SMS them on their phone. Mobile phones are in fact so central to peoples' lives that 7 out of 10 owners sleep with their phones within arm's length.
Google has been working with carriers and manufacturers for a few years now. At the very least, it's starting to figure out how this game works AND has been making friends in the right places. Facebook, meanwhile, is nowhere in sight.
a new phone is paid for with hard money (or requires entering in contract with a carrier; with its own stiff monetary penalties for bowing out), social sites are, and will likely continue being, free. Switching habits can be painful but doable, writing off a paid-for “investment” is likely harder.
In fact, using Android as the cornerstone of Google's new social push would make sense on several levels. The habits are there, the partnerships are there, the definite edge over Facebook is there, the user lock-in is there, the monetization is there, etc.
Which brings me to the following reading of recent events:
The deal with Verizon is about making sure Facebook's social content costs more to the user and to Facebook, and therefore advertisers, than Google's social content on mobile phones.
Vic Gundotra got placed as head of social at Google because he seems to have been responsible for Android's success. If Android is the entry point, no one is going to move things faster than Gundotra.
The Android team's insistence to render phone manufacturers skins obsolete (Motoblur, HTC Sense, etc.) is a way to make sure that Google's social User experience is a few steps ahead of the Facebook experience. If you're a phone manufacturer creating a UX for a user you want to give him instant gratification and that means “show him what he already knows” and that would be Facebook and Twitter, certainly not Google's new thing.
Now maybe I'm reading this wrong. Maybe Wired is right to say that the Verizon deal is due to Google's growth starting to flatline. Maybe GigaOM is right that Gundotra's placing as head of social is a sign of profound lack of social understanding within google. Maybe the Android team is honest when it says that it's only obsoleting the skins to make sure the Android UX is uniform across devices. Maybe. But the Jerry Fletcher voice in my head keeps telling me that the puzzle pieces fit too well for it to be a coincidence. If nothing else, Facebook's reaction to the Verizon deal seems to show that it is worried, as it should be.
Of course none of this would play out overnight. Google's goal would be to create an Android-induced momentum to give it a beach-head from which to expand. And while it won't overtake Facebook in the immediate, it'll at least have something to make it bleed.
But this story wouldn't be complete without the rest of the cast. I'm personally impatiently awaiting one of the older mobile players to face the camera and say: “I'll be back.”
So who will it be? And who'll incarnate Sarah Connor (John Connor's mother) and team up with the “obsolete” T-800? This I don't know. That part of the story is still to be written. I'm willing to bet, though, that the other behemoths out there (Apple, RIM, Nokia) are likely natural Facebook allies since Google is fighting them with its own mobile OS. As such, they and Facebook should become friends, and the sooner the better.
Then again, maybe it's more Tarantino than Cameron and I should better stick to watching movies.
P.S.: And if I were RIM and the above holds water, I'd buy LinkedIn ASAP.
P.P.S.: And if I were Facebook and the above holds water, I might want to have a chat with Nokia. They're still the biggest mobile phone manufacturer out there, they've got a world-wide audience (a key growth area for Facebook), they're eagerly looking for a way to differentiate themselves in North-America, and they've actually got a truly open mobile platform which anyone is welcome to contribute to: MeeGo. Creating plans for working with manufacturers is good. Having your say in phones being shipped is better.