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Gmail Gets Social Media Upgrade

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google took the wraps off a significant update to its Gmail service with Buzz, a new service it says brings more efficiency and security to the sea of tweets and other real-time feeds in which it says users are drowning.

“There’s value there, but it’s increasingly harder and harder to find the signal in the noise,” Bradley Horowitz, a Google vice president of product management, said today during an event here at the Googleplex. “You used to be able to let the stream wash over you, but when you get up to 500 or 5,000 friends, it becomes very, very difficult.”

Google’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) solution is Buzz, a new feature in Gmail that’s also available in a mobile version and on Google’s mobile home page. While the service has just launched today, Google says it will take several days to reach the millions of Gmail users.

Buzz appears as an application in Gmail’s left-hand menu, pre-populated with friends or followers among the people you e-mail most often. Like Twitter, Buzz lets you post observations, links, photos and videos for others to see while enabling you to view those from your friends. But you can also choose to make your posts private or limited to a specific group. Buzz defaults to whatever setting you last used, but can be changed at the click of a mouse. Public posts are added to the index Google uses as part of its core search engine.

Google has also added a number of features designed to enhance access to shared content. A Buzz icon appears next to e-mail in your inbox to show that it contains content from friends or contacts — comments or photos, for instance. Also, photo links sent by a Gmail user can be viewed as thumbnails, but at a click can also be enlarged to an almost full-screen size. It also integrates photo navigator that allows for quick scrolling among included images. Also, comments arrive in real-time, as the demo showed, so that you might see a comment pop up on the very photo you’re viewing.

The search leader said it’s trying to keep clutter down by highlighting Buzz posts from people with whom you communicate frequently. For example, Buzz content from close friends with whom you interact often would show up more prominently on the page, though Google takes steps to weed out posts it doesn’t consider important, based on its computer analysis — like “I had eggs today.” Those instead would drop to a lower spot.

Google Buzz for enterprises?

The search giant also indicated that it plans to move aggressively into the enterprise space with Buzz after testing it among employees at Google offices.

“We have a thriving enterprise business, and as we’ve been testing Buzz done in the context of our own corporation, we’ve found it invaluable,” Horowitz said.

Google vice president of engineering Vic Gondotra said Buzz for the enterprise, integrated with its Google Apps suite, would be available “soon.”

While Google remains an early entrant in the enterprise space, the No. 1 search engine would face off with a number of established players such as Socialtext and Socialcast that have focused on providing social media features behind the firewall.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin said he recently found Buzz to be a critical tool while composing an op-ed piece for the New York Timesabout Google’s controversial book digitizing project.

“I posted a draft and got 50 comments on Buzz within a few hours that were really helpful,” he said.

Similarly, Gondotra told InternetNews.comthat Buzz has let him see public chatter among engineering teams he normally wouldn’t be privy to. “They complained about a decision by the UI team and it was something I was able to step in on and resolve, so that was quite useful,” he said.

Google has another project called Google Wave that aims to enhance real-time communications, and Horowitz said Wave was an inspiration for Buzz.

“We’re excited by the integration possibilities, but for now Wave is thriving on its own trajectory,” he said. “Integration is the logical next step of what we can do.”

David Needle is West Coast bureau chief at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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