The Revolution Will Be Video-Chatted
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a look around Google's new social network recently, gathering 30,000 followers in the process. His network also launched a new video chat feature this week in cooperation with Skype. Video chat's also something Google+ features -- though its version of the tech can go group-style. Meanwhile, Redmond went to China, Amazon expanded its cloud and Sprint may join the iPhone party.
07/09/11 5:00 AM PT
More than a week after Google+'s launch, millions of social networkers are still crying out in vain for their invitations. Naturally, though, the tech industry's cultural elite are already inside the door, checking things out and getting an advance look-see.
OK, not all of Google+'s first settlers are titans of technology; they're mostly just people who happened to be on the ball enough to ask for an invite before Google halted the sign-up process. But among them is none other than Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Google+'s assumed arch rival, Facebook. He also happens to be one of Google+'s most popular members, racking up nearly 30,000 followers less than a week after the site opened.
It's not exactly surprising that Zuckerberg's made such a big splash on Google+ -- who wouldn't take the opportunity to size up the competition? And in order to effectively gauge a social network, you've got to be at least a little sociable. So even though he's relatively guarded about who he lets in on his own Facebook profile, he's allowed his Google+ page to amass this giant legion of followers.
Perhaps being so public with Zuckerberg's presence on the site might be Facebook's way of saying it's not scared of the big, bad Google machine. But it also might be a testament to how much Facebook considers Google a threat. Does anyone know or care how much Zuckerberg uses Twitter or LinkedIn? But here he is on Google+, accepting followers left and right.
Google+ is still in its early stages, though, so it's unclear just how worried Facebook should be. One thing Facebook has on its side is the physics of social media gravity. Facebook is right now closing in on a billion members, and people are naturally going to want to stay with whatever network most of their friends are already part of. Quitting Facebook and taking up with Google+ means you can't network with a big chunk of your friends unless and until they decide to make the jump too.
Of course the Google+/Facebook decision isn't an either/or proposition. You can do both. But everyone has a limit as to how many social networks they want to be a part of -- one more at this point may be a bridge too far. The trick is to differentiate -- what can Google+ give you that Facebook can't, and is it worth it to spend time with both?
Maybe Facebook is too cluttered, and Google+ is the chance to start a fresh profile with friends you really care about, not a bunch of people who are practically strangers. But if you've managed to hoard 900 personal "friends" on Facebook and that's what's making you think the site's cluttered, there's really nothing about Google+ to prevent you from doing that all over again eventually.
But Google does have Circles, which is an easy way to individually manage how much each of your Google+ contacts get to interact with you. That's one feature that seems to address a frequent quarrel users have with Facebook: privacy. If Google+ can win minds by beating the privacy drum, it might be on to something. But it does seem kind of odd to turn toward Google in search of greater privacy.
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Since Zuckerberg's obviously been studying up on the ways of Google+, it might be tempting to accuse his company of ripping off one of Google+'s main features with the new stuff Facebook rolled out this week. But really it was probably in the works for a long time before anyone at Facebook HQ ever got a first look at Google+.
In fact, what Facebook came up with this week has been correctly speculated on for several weeks. It's video chat -- fire up your webcam and conduct one-on-one video chat sessions with your friends. Availability will be gradually spread among Facebook members over the next few weeks.
The new functionality comes courtesy of Skype -- no big surprise there. Back when Skype was up for sale, Facebook was talked about as a serious buyer, and this is exactly the kind of thing that was expected to happen if the social network put in the winning bid.
As it turns out, though, Microsoft outbid everyone else by a long shot on that one, and since Facebook is already in tight with Microsoft, it was kind of like a rich relative buying a new sportscar and letting Facebook drive it whenever it wants.
However, at this time it seems this ability has not been taken to the mobile version of Facebook. Skype does fine on mobile, and Facebook has a hugely popular set of mobile apps, but the two aren't coming together in the foreseeable future.
Also, the video chat is obviously limited in use to other Facebook members. That's not exactly different from other methods of video chat though -- Facetimers have to both have Apple devices, Skype has always required both users to be Skypers, etc.
The specific Google+ feature that Facebook's video chat mirrors is called "Hangouts," and it launched with the new Google network last week. One big plus for Hangouts is that it allows group video chats, which Facebook isn't offering as yet.
So now that the biggest social network in the world and the new social network from the biggest Internet company in the world are both pushing their video chat functions simultaneously, perhaps this is a moment in which the technology will see at least a little more mainstream use.
Video chat is nice to have when you really need to communicate visually, but for most conversations, so far it seems a simple talk will do just fine. Plus, with video chat you might have to worry about what you look like, what's going on in back of you, you can't spin in your office chair, stare at the ceiling, fiddle with desk accoutrements. And you can't even really make eye contact. The webcam's usually right above the monitor, so it's like you're talking at each other's chests throughout the conversation.
Are You Gonna Eat That?
Google scored something of a PR win stateside last year when it decided it was no longer going to play the Chinese government's censorship game. It stopped filtering search results for queries it received from Chinese users and refused to continue nitpicking the Web for every little thing the government there doesn't want its citizens to see. As a result, Google's ability to do business in that country was severely restricted, though the move did win it a lot of goodwill from freedom-of-information advocates.
But Google's diminished presence in China has created a vacuum, and it's a vacuum Microsoft is eager to fill with its competing search platform, Bing.
Not that Google was the only way Chinese Web users could run a search. The country has a home-grown search engine, Baidu, which is already big and growing fast. And it's seeing a rising demand for English-language search results. That's where Bing's going to come in -- under a new deal, Microsoft's engine will accommodate Baidu's English-speaking users.
Even though Bing's still far behind Google on its home turf in the U.S., much less other countries, it's making serious gains for such a relatively new search engine. In May, it chalked up a 75 percent year-over-year growth rate, and most of those gains came from Google's losses. It's punching its way onto iOS with a new iPad app, and it has tight tie-ins with Facebook.
In order to follow through with this deal, though, Bing is going to have to comply with the Chinese government's every censorship whim, and the ins and outs of what's allowed and not allowed in that regard can get pretty tricky.
And as a company with its heart in the U.S., Microsoft faces other concerns in cooperating with the Chinese government. They don't end with merely blocking out certain information. There's always the possibility of getting entangled in an even messier political conflict.
I'm thinking back to the Yahoo incident of 2005, when Chinese journalist Shi Tao was imprisoned for sending a government document to an overseas pro-Chinese-Democracy organization via Yahoo mail. Authorities asked Yahoo for information about who sent the item, they gave it up with few questions asked, and Shi was imprisoned.
That's where Shi will probably remain for the rest of his 10-year sentence. For Yahoo, it was a ghastly bungle for which it's had to apologize on many occasions, not that it helps Shi's situation. And it's entirely possible that Microsoft could find itself facing a potentially explosive request from authorities as well. If it does, it'll have to step very carefully.
The battle of the cloud music services is getting windier, and while Google's cloud is still in beta and Apple's offering isn't even out the door yet, Amazon has already added some sweetener to its own deal.
The company's decided to make a limited-time offer to users: For US$20 a year, they can get an unlimited online music storage locker from its Cloud Drive service. They can stuff it as full of music data as they want; $20 covers the annual storage fee, and it gives them an additional 20 GB of space for non-music files. This is over and above the 5 GB of storage space any user can get for free.
From that position in the cloud, of course, a user's music can be streamed to a wide variety of Internet-connected devices, as long as they have the Amazon Cloud Player installed.
Compare that to Apple's iCloud offering. It's a mostly free service that syncs up a whole lot of the user's data across devices, but if you want to get access to all your music, including songs you didn't get from iTunes, that'll be $25 a year, a difference of 1.3 pennies per day.
But for iPhone users, iCloud versus Cloud Drive isn't much of a choice: Amazon doesn't make a Cloud Player app for iPhone, so those users can't easily stream music from cloud to phone. Signs suggest that might not be a permanent state of affairs, though -- Amazon just recently also released a Cloud Player app for iPad, so who knows, maybe iPhone's next in line. That just depends on whether or not Apple will give it the go-ahead.
There's another fundamental difference between Apple's and Amazon's services. With Amazon Cloud Drive, you take your music and upload the actual data to the cloud. So if you have 40 GB of music on your computer and you want it all on Cloud Drive, you're going to be pumping all 40 GB of data into Amazon's servers.
iCloud works differently: It scans your entire collection, makes a list of the songs you have, then compares it to iTunes' library of songs for sale. It doesn't matter where you got your copy of the song; if it's in Apple's catalog and you're paying for the premium service, Apple will grant you access to that tune directly from its central hub. No upload necessary.
That's made possible through deals that Apple managed to put in place with the major record companies. Amazon did not secure those kinds of deals, but it maintains that by having users upload the actual data, Cloud Drive acts the same as any external hard drive -- no streaming rights required. [*Correction - July 9, 2011]
Sliding Into Third?
It's been such a long time since we've seen this many iPhone rumors floating around. Were you feeling deprived? Weep no more, speculation is getting dumped by the truckload -- how many will Apple, make, when they'll come along, what they'll look like, etc. But on the carrier side, there's also talk about whether Apple will take yet another U.S. partner.
Sprint is in the running to be the iPhone's next U.S. carrier, according to Citadel's Shing Yin. This probably won't be as much of a shakeup as when Verizon snagged the iPhone earlier this year, but it could change the game in several not-so-trivial ways.
First, part of the reasoning behind why this could be such a likely scenario is that Verizon just recently instituted data caps on all new service lines. No more unlimited mobile data buffet. AT&T did something similar last year when the iPhone 4 came out, and just like AT&T's policy, existing customers with data plans can be grandfathered in for as long as they remain on the same line of service. But with the two biggest carriers limiting new users' data plans, Sprint would be the only way a newly minted U.S. customer could find an iPhone that doesn't start gouging you for data the second you hit your monthly limit.
Sprint's monthly bills may also be marginally cheaper for some users as well, though the price of actually getting the phone probably wouldn't dip below the figures the other two carriers charge. But the lower monthly bill is a powerful attractor for some customers. With a contract, you can get an old-model iPhone for $50; it's the monthly bills that really kill you. Lower those, and maybe iPhone can beat back Android's growth a little.
It wouldn't be very difficult for Apple to make a Sprint phone, either -- not as difficult as making the Verizon iPhone anyway. Sprint uses the same type of network Verizon uses, so no invasive surgery would be required.
So what would the iPhone's other two U.S. carriers think about another competitor entering the iPhone club? They might not think about it much at all. Sprint's a runt compared to the other two, and as long as it wouldn't get to undercut them on cost of acquisition, it probably wouldn't amount to very much pain for either's bottom line.
*ECT News Network editor's note - July 9, 2011: In our original publication of this article, it's stated that iCloud will only sync music that happens to reside in iTunes' general library. In fact, the service also allows users to upload into the cloud tracks that do not appear in iTunes' library.