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Google's Social Blowout

By Paul Hartsock
Jul 2, 2011 5:00 AM PT

Google made a very socially awkward move with its rollout of Google Buzz last year. It was Google's attempt to build a social network in part by stringing together various existing pieces of its infrastructure -- your contacts from over here, your Gmail account over there, Google Reader if you use it, so on.

Google's Social Blowout

The problem with Buzz was that while it was shuffling around this complex network of acquaintances from different parts of your life, certain wires had a way of getting crossed. In the end, lots of people could potentially learn a few things about you that you may have rather kept private, or at least compartmentalized. Some of the specific privacy concerns users had could be fixed by wrenching around various account settings, but some of them were difficult to find and were set to open by default. The bottom line was that Buzz had boundary issues. It tried to get a little too friendly, and the backlash came on fast and furious.

Technically, Buzz is still alive. is still a working URL. But rather than attempt to salvage Buzz for its next big shot at social networking, Google came up with something else entirely and slapped a new name on it: Google+. It's being launched as a closed beta with a limited number of invites, and Google admits it's still working out some kinks, but it has given the public an idea of the direction Google's trying to take this time around.

Early reaction is that the interface looks a whole lot like Facebook's, just more Googley -- meaning it uses colors other than blue. Go with what works, I guess.

But one big difference Google is trying to press is the way it lets you categorize your friends. You don't have the same level of familiarity with every single person you know and connect with on social networks. You have your closest friends, family members, friends from way back, coworkers, neighbors, people whose names you mildly recognize, maybe even a few interesting-looking strangers, all connected to your profile. The way some networks call all of these people your "friends" sort of degrades the meaning of the word, and sometimes you may not want to share something for fear that not everyone will understand, or because you don't think everyone in your life needs to know.

So Google+ uses what it calls "Circles." You can cordon off various groups of people in your contacts list, then pick and choose exactly which Circles you share a given post with. Granted, Facebook has Groups also, but from what I've seen it looks like Google may have a leg up on the management interface.

Google+ will also try to breathe some life into video chat with Hangouts. Basically, Hangouts are like those AOL chatrooms from back in the day, but with video. So perhaps it's a little like Chatroullette, only you happen to know the people on the other end, so less chance of seeing random naked strangers.

The launch of Google+ looks to be the direct attack on Facebook that we've been expecting for many months now. There have been proxy fights and passive-aggressive swipes here and there, but now Google's moving into social networking with a service that looks and acts a whole lot like Facebook's main platform. Facebook's the established king of social networking, and it's already on its way to a billion members, but if any company out there can at least make it break a sweat, Google would be it.

But if any of that made you want to try out Google+ for yourself, forget it. You're going to have to put that on hold. Days after Google+ went live, the company suspended the distribution of new invitations, drastically slowing the number of new members who could sign up. It turned the act of finding a Google+ invite into some kind of scavenger hunt; some people even tried to sell them on eBay. Throttling back the invitation system means Google may miss a big opportunity by failing to cash in on all the initial curiosity there is out there for Google+, though the company might be right to hold back if capacity really is reaching its limits. The last thing it needs is for its shiny new social network to crash the day of the launch because of overcrowding.

Listen to the podcast (14:35 minutes).

.. And You're Working for No One but Me

The economy's forced state governments across the U.S. to come up with ever-more-creative ways to dig up a few extra pennies, and the state of California has found itself having to dig deeper than most. Two years ago, legislators there tried to pass a so-called Amazon tax, which would require online retailers to collect California sales taxes on purchases made by California residents. Then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger killed that bill, but the state's old/new governor Jerry Brown thought it was a fine idea, and recently he signed a similar bill into law.

The ink on that was barely dry when Amazon took action: It canceled its relationships with thousands of its California-based affiliate vendors -- online retailers that sell through Amazon. Otherwise it may have been forced to become a tax collector on behalf of a state in which it isn't even based.

Under previous conditions, mail-order companies and e-commerce operations didn't have to collect sales taxes when selling to a customer who lived in a state in which the business had no physical presence. So wouldn't have to charge an Iowa resident Iowa sales taxes if the site didn't have a satellite office in Iowa. But if it did have an office in Rhode Island, a buyer in Providence would have to pay up.

California's law adds a new condition: An online vendor that sells to a California resident must collect state sales taxes on the transaction not only if the company has a personal presence in the state, but also if the company merely has an affiliate presence in the state. Thus if Amazon didn't cut its ties to its California affiliates the moment the bill got signed, it would immediately be in violation of state law the second a Californian hit "submit order" on a purchase through its site without paying a tax. And it's not as though Amazon could just flip a switch and immediately begin applying taxes to all its California sales -- building that kind of structure into a sales system as big as Amazon's doesn't happen overnight.

So who are these affiliates? They range from one-person businesses run out of a house to 100-employee operations. Maybe not all of their business came through their recently deceased Amazon partnerships, but for a lot of them, it did constitute a good chunk. And Amazon's not the only online retailer cutting ties like this; the Performance Marketing Association says hundreds of other etailers are following suit.

Amazon further protested the passage of the bill by calling it "unconstitutional and counterproductive," and that first word makes it sound like there may be a big legal fight on the horizon.

Gouge Away

"Duke Nukem Forever" and the opinion of Roger Ebert notwithstanding, the sophistication and craftwork found in modern video games has brought the medium to a point at which you could rightly call certain examples works of art. And now the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled they're definitely a form of expression worthy of full First Amendment protection.

The court ruled 7-2 that a law banning the sale of violent video games to kids is unconstitutional. It doesn't matter how gruesome the action gets -- the game could feature first-person power-tool homicide like in "Manhunt 2," incredibly misogynistic plot points like "Duke Nukem Forever," or even an animal-abusing plumber with a thing for crushing small creatures with his bare feet like Super Mario. You can't be thrown in jail for selling it to a minor.

The high court's decision comes six years after a law was passed in California that criminalized the act of selling certain games to children. That law was based on legislative findings that they stimulate feelings of aggression, reduce brain activity and promote violent and antisocial behavior.

However, that law has been tied up in courtrooms for years. Any law that includes criminal prosecution for selling a work of personal expression tends to get a lot of attention from lawyers and judges. A law that would imprison someone for purveying works of personal expression comes dangerously close to violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

But as anyone who's ever been a kid can tell you, a lot of good that does you when you're 15 and you want to get into an R-rated movie. That's because industries like the movies self-regulate. That whole thing about having to be 17 to see an R-rated movie without a parent coming with you? That's an MPAA rule that the film studios and theaters agree on, not a law passed by Congress. If you're a kid on your own, theaters can deny you entry, they can kick you out if you sneak in, and they can fire the employee who looked the other way, but they're not worried about the owner going to jail just because a ticket-taker let a few high school freshmen in to see "Hangover 2."

Then again, some forms of expression are most certainly illegal to provide to minors. If you give pornography to a kid, you can be prosecuted, though in some cases the difficulty of defining exactly what pornography is might come into play.

So one of the things the Supreme Court had to weigh was whether violent games should be treated more like porn or more like conventional films and books and other media. Whether or not the idea of giving a kid interactive control of a chainsaw-wielding virtual criminal is obscene in its own right is something you can argue about all night if you like. But in writing for the majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia noted that violence has long been a staple of children's entertainment, so letting them participate in a bit of virtual choppy-stabby should be viewed differently than letting them watch hardcore raunchiness.

It's not as though the court's somehow endorsing the sale of violent games to minors -- just ensuring that those who sell them, on purpose or by accident, won't be held criminally liable. They might still lose their jobs at the video game store. That's because the gaming industry has its own rating system overseen by the ESRB, and most game retailers adhere very strictly to its age recommendations -- sometimes even more strictly than movie theater owners stick to the MPAA's.

The Fall of MySpace

After years of lost money, member defections, logo changes, layoffs and an uncountable number of unbelievably ugly profile pages, MySpace is leaving the House of Murdoch. News Corp. has sold the downward-spiraling social network for a rumored price of under $40 million, which is less than a tenth of what the corporation paid for it back in 2005.

Back then, Facebook was still for the college kids and MySpace was the dominant social network of the world. Even so, MySpace was fairly small if you compare it to how many members Facebook has today, and News Corp. saw big opportunities for growth, thus the $580 million it ponied up for control of the social network.

Unfortunately for News Corp., though, it snatched up MySpace pretty much directly at the network's high-water mark. It was all downhill from there. Facebook gradually carved out an image that just seemed "cleaner," for lack of a better word.

The design's minimalistic, if not a little stifling to one's creativity. But regardless of age or background, it drew people in as a nice, neutral spot in which to establish an online identity and connect with friends. Meanwhile, MySpace began to look more and more like some Mountain-Dew-soaked, manically overdecorated under-18 nightclub.

But it still had its music. MySpace remained a popular place for musicians and their fans to connect. MySpace embraced that with MySpace Music, and just last November, the network said it was formally giving up on trying to steal the social networking crown from Facebook in order to pursue a strategy that emphasized the music networking niche.

However, MySpace remained a drain on the News Corp. balance sheet. This talented child that Rupert Murdoch had invited into his home six years ago had turned into a struggling young musician living on his couch and eating all his Doritos. So MySpace was pushed out the door in short order, never mind the bargain-basement sale price. And unfortunately that meant many, many layoffs -- more than half its staff, reportedly.

So who's the lucky buyer? That would be an outfit called Specific Media. Don't let yourself feel too unhip if you've never heard of them; as of Thursday afternoon, Wikipedia hadn't heard of them either. But they now own MySpace, and they happen to have a very famous new partner in the operation.

Justin Timberlake apparently loved playing a social media mogul in the movies so much that he's decided to take up the role in real life. As a partner in the venture, he'll play a key part in attempting to completely restart the social network into something more musically oriented, whatever that might be.

The Office in the Sky Keeps on Turning

Microsoft's slow rollout of its Office in the sky is now complete. Office 365 has moved from closed beta to full release, and it includes online versions of Redmond's Office suite, as well as Sharepoint, Exchange and Lync.

It basically takes a handful of Microsoft's most profitable non-Windows software products and turns them into online products much like Google Apps. Prices range from $2 to $11 per user per month, so enterprises can do the math as to whether it's a better deal to buy these products up front or pay a subscription and get an added measure of collaboration features.

Of course I had to use the term "Google Apps" to describe what Office 365 is, because this is a space in which Google has already staked out a lot of mind-share. Its Web-based office applications may not have received the same respect as Office when they first arrived, but they slowly improved. Now they've managed to draw interest from large organizations, including the government of the city of Los Angeles. Google Apps' pro edition costs $5 per month and includes a service level agreement.

Still, Microsoft Office remains the standard app suite for many enterprises, so the company's name recognition alone will likely bring in a lot of takers. It says it's built a partner ecosystem that includes systems integrators, software vendors, resellers and service providers, who'll bundle Office 365 with a variety of other services -- Web hosting, finance solutions, mobile services, etc.

But that part about needing systems integrators might give one pause. Hearing that term makes you think of complicated acts of technological husbandry, rather than a simple, ready-when-you are cloud service.

Security is also a concern. Any enterprise that keeps some of its most important documents in the cloud will have to place an incredible amount of trust in the cloud provider, and both Microsoft and Google happen to make very juicy targets for hackers.

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