Google+: One Hell Of A Trojan Horse

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There’s no shortage of Google+ in the air these days. Overeager pundits and soothsayers are hoping to be among the most visible voices on the net saying which service or company it’s going to topple, why it’s going to fail or succeed, and why it should or shouldn’t be more like this or that.

It all seems awfully premature, considering Google+ is just getting started, and I don’t mean in user numbers. We’re all familiar enough with Google products to know that practically everything they’ve ever done was launched early and incomplete, whether it went on to succeed (Gmail, Android) or not (Orkut, Wave). Most if not all of the big talk surrounding the network right now will have to be adjusted in a month, six months, and a year from now. It’s fun to speculate, but Google is always playing the long game. Google+ isn’t just half-baked; they haven’t even put it in the oven yet. Let’s not judge the cookie by the dough.

Is it an alternative to Facebook? Yes. To Twitter? Yes. To Yammer, to productivity suites, to Skype, to Office, to Microsoft, to Apple? If it isn’t now, you better believe it will be. Google is like a kind of Troll-Borg. You think they put out something that stands on its own, a “Facebook killer” or an “iPhone killer” — but it’s only later that you realize that the separation from the mothership was just an illusion, and the entire bulk of Google was right there the whole time. But it’s too late — you’ve been assimilated. Problem?

I wrote a long time ago about how all these little projects of theirs would be connected and unified, the way the Romans unified their empire by joining all the little roads to their big roads. I thought it was going to happen with Chrome OS, but a tumultuous mobile market meant a late start there; Google+ is more of a clear step in that direction now.

The thing is, as I wrote then, you can’t take the measure of Rome by looking at just one of their roads. And you can’t take the measure of Google+ right now, because it’s just the first mile. The best way to debut the connecting tissue of their web empire wasn’t to make an OS — the market wasn’t ready for that. So after an OS, what is the most popular and accessible platform? Mobile (check) then Facebook, around which there’s growing enmity, distrust, and boredom. Iron: hot. Pile all the Google services into that big wooden horse and say “here’s a nice, secure alternative for sharing things with your friends.” Don’t mention the fact that lurking inside it (waiting for a reveal a few months down the line) are a hundred ways of sucking users away from their existing services — in ways that neither Facebook, Microsoft, nor Apple can. Is it about social? Yeah, because that was the face Google needed to wear this week. Beware of geeks bearing gifts.

I suppose I’ve done what I cautioned everyone else not to do: speculate on a product that’s barely even there. 10 million users is great, but the meteoric rise and fall of countless web services can bear witness to the fact that the first month is probably the least important in a service’s lifetime. Around Thanksgiving we might be talking about how silly we all sounded talking up the ghost town that is Google+. Or maybe some of us will be calling an emergency meeting in the board room because Google just ate our business model alive.

Whatever the case, I feel confident in saying that Google’s long haul plan for + is subtle, sinister, and far-reaching. Not evil, exactly, but cunning and ruthless. Sure, right now it seems like it’s aimed at Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter, but when the stakes are this high, you better believe they’ve got guns pointed at everyone in the room. Comparing features with its immediate competitors misses the point, and at any rate the landscape shifts so frequently that such comparisons are fleeting to begin with. Think big, and think sneaky. Eric Schmidt seems like a nice guy, but I sure would rather have Zuckerberg or Ballmer for an enemy. I guess we can continue to talk about it, but personally, I’m getting some popcorn first.