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Google unveiled today new "Social Gadgets" for its iGoogle site. The gadgets transform iGoogle from a who-cares launch page into a culture-shifting social network, like Facebook or MySpace -- potentially.
I'm not going to predict that iGoogle is a "Facebook killer." But I am going to argue that it should be.
It's hard to imagine now, but back in the 1990s, consumers were torn between accessing the Internet directly, using a browser and an ISP, or indirectly, using America Online (AOL). The argument in favor of AOL was that you still get the whole Internet, but you also get all the communities, products, services and family controls of the AOL service.
In the end, of course, accessing the Web via AOL turned out to be a losing proposition. The main reason is that people don't like being walled inside an online "container" like AOL. They want to be out on the open Web, roaming free.
It's all just bits flying around in packets over IP, of course, but user psychology is ultimately the only thing that determines the success or failure of any Web-based service. If it feels good, people will do it. Period.
Why iGoogle Social Gadgets Rule
If you're not familiar with iGoogle, the service is Google's customizable start page. The idea is that you personalize the options, then configure your browser to open the iGoogle page automatically when your browser first opens. User-selectable gadgets can show you the weather, your Gmail messages, news headlines -- that sort of thing. Boring, right?
Social Gadgets transform the page. The new gadgets unveiled today include social games like Chess, Scrabble and Trivia. Social productivity apps, such as a sharable to-do list, are nice, too. But these pale in comparison to the gadgets that threaten Facebook directly.
(Note that Google will be gradually rolling out Social Gadgets in the US this week, so you may not get immediate access to them.)
A Google-made Gadget called Timeline performs the same function as Facebook status updates.
Another Google Gadget unveiled today is called Social Photos. It does just what it sounds like it does -- it lets you upload and share your photos using whatever popular photo sharing site your pictures are already sitting on, including Flickr and Picasa.
Gadgets are also viral. A one-click "Share this gadget" feature could spark exponential growth in the use of iGoogle for social networking.
iGoogle as a social networking site sits directly between MySpace and Facebook in the area of customizability. It's more customizable than stodgy, boring Facebook, but less customizable than garish, horrid MySpace.
You can share the stuff on your iGoogle page either on a gadget-by-gadget basis, or via something called Updates. Updates lets you choose what kinds of stuff to share, and with whom. Updates taps into your existing "Friends group," which is already part of Google Contacts.
The potential for third-party apps is huge. Apps could do for iGoogle what they did for the iPhone. Yeah, I know: Facebook has applications, too. But when Apple launched its iTunes apps store, so did Palm, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile. What matters is the quality of the app experience for users. Like Apple's competition in the smart phone market, Facebook applications are extremely unpleasant to install and use.
iGoogle already has 60,000 gadgets, but only the 19 gadgets announced today are social. If iGoogle is taken seriously as a social network, you could imagine an iPhone app-like explosion of social gadgets.
iGoogle "feels" like the wide-open Web, while Facebook "feels" like AOL -- like a closed, windowless room on the Web. iGoogle should be superior to Facebook because it eliminates undesirable elements (such as a muddled, slow and confusing user interface) and adds desirable ones (such as Google searching and integration with existing services like Google Contacts, Gmail and Calendar.
iGoogle should also solve a very real problem that exists on Facebook, which is that young people are leaving the service in drovesnow that their parents and grandparents have invaded the joint. iGoogle social gadgets can enable gadget-by-gadget sharing, unlike Facebook's all-or-nothing approach. That means young people can share nice pictures and Timeline updates with grandma, but connect to friends via gadgets grandma can't see.
I believe that Google needs to do only two things to transform iGoogle into a Facebook killer. First, it needs simply to integrate with or even conspicuously link to Google Profiles -- that's a no-brainer. Second, and possibly more expensively, it needs to acquire and integrate Twitter.
Twitter integration (and hurry, before the world abandons Twitter for something better), would drive all those active Twitter users to iGoogle, and add Twitter's real-time chat and search functionality to iGoogle. It would give people a reason to have iGoogle open all day.
It's easy to imagine a range of objections to Google becoming the de-facto social networking company; chief among these is privacy. But that's an issue for another column.
In the meantime, the integration of Social Gadgets into iGoogle could be the beginning of a wonderful new way to do social networking -- and also the beginning of the end for Facebook. The only questions are: Will it feel good, and will people do it?