G+ fails, Facebook disrupts itself - the enterprise view

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 29, 2014
The failure of G+ points us away from massive sites towards jugular apps. Here's my enterprisey take.

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After a long hiatus in obscurity, Google Plus made tech headlines this week, though not for flattering reasons. Posts like Google+ is the Walking Dead followed in the wake of Vic Gundotra's departure from Google.

The news elicited yawns from my enterprisey colleagues, for understandable reasons. As I wrote yesterday, 'There’s no blander and less important notification on the Internet today than ‘so-and-so has added you to their circles.''

It seems like just yesterday Google Plus engineers were patting themselves on the back for cracking the social code with the revolutionary, err, I mean, absurdly complex concept of asymmetrical 'Circles' as a way to filter and consume content in a reciprocal or non-reciprocal manner, depending on whether the person who had circled you was in your circles, and which circles you were consuming at any one time (It was actually July of 2011). But the bigger story was the platform. As soon as Google Plus launched, the tech media narrative set up a horse race with Twitter, LinkedIn, and particularly Facebook: could Google Plus become part of the big four, or even unseat Facebook from its daily relevance chokehold?

Social networks are breaking up - with themselves

Fast forward three years: the entire narrative has flipped, into a debate about whether massive web platforms are going to hold up, or whether the future is focused apps that serve jugular needs and pull personalized data into networks. And that's where the enterprise should take notice.

Google Plus was buried a long time ago, a riddle most users couldn't be bothered to solve. But Google Plus did not have to succeed at a Facebook-like scale to accomplish things for Google. Google Plus provided Google with a deeper social graph, at a time when it was struggling to update its search revenue dependency with socially-informed listings.

In that sense, TechCrunch's report (confirmed to two sources inside of Google but not by Google itself), that the Google Plus shakeup extends beyond Gundotra to include 1000-1,200 core team members, and is more of a traumatic dispersing of team members into relevant departments than a complete shut down.

Scrounge beneath the 'Google Plus is dead' headlines and the real story surfaces. As per TechCrunch, the team responsible for Hangouts (the one killer app of the Google Plus platform) is heading to the Android team, and supposedly most of the resources will follow into building the Android platform. In this piece from ex-Google employee Danny Crichton, who worked on Plus, this passage leaped off the page:

While most analysts will chalk up the initiative as a failure, I think that is putting it too simply. Google+ failed as a social network, to be sure. But the competitive threat of social and the resulting focus around Google+ finally forced the company to change its product culture, results that continue to benefit the company to this day. It has been more than two years since the headline 'Is Google Dead' had any meaning whatsoever. Facebook’s threat to the company now comes from mobile instead of social. Few would have predicted that outcome three years ago.

Let's encore that last line: 'Facebook’s threat to the company now comes from mobile instead of social. Few would have predicted that outcome three years ago.'

Mobile apps delivered the decisive blow

The company that deflated Google Plus' tire wasn't Facebook - it was the same messaging startup that Facebook bought for a spectacular premium: WhatsApp. Facebook's growing mobile user base of 945 million a month doesn't use the bulk of Facebook's features. The main activities are instant messaging and getting the quick hit 'Newsfeed' update. Users are 20 percent more likely to respond to messages within the mobile app than on the web site itself.

In Wired, Flurry CEO Simon Khalaf broke it down: 'The Facebook experience is three experiences in one. One is photo sharing; the wall, which is news; and the third is communication. And they’ve broken that up into three applications.'

Done: Facebook doubled down (and ticked off a lot of users such as yours truly), by requiring mobile users to download Facebook Messanger. Soon it will not be be possible to send messages via the main mobile app - an admittedly bloated app that Zuckerberg himself has cast aspersions on, at least in terms of the chat experience).

Contrast that with BuzzFeed's review of the WhatsApp user experience:

It’s a primitive-looking app — maybe even ugly — and it contains no ads. It associates with your phone number and circumvents texting charges; it only takes a few friends to join before its crude, simple appeal is obvious. It feels more immediate than texting and has no messaging limits, which was the key to its early popularity. It’s also quite a bit richer than texting and traditional MMS — you can send almost any media on your phone very quickly — without feeling complicated.

From the enterprise angle, an under-reported tidbit: WhatsApp isn't just for teens who don't feel like sharing their rave plans with their grandparents on Facebook. I've seen significant adoption of WhatsApp by the software executives I know, particularly in the frequent traveler and corporate BlackBerry set (which makes sense, as WhatsApp is the kind of lightweight app that can actually run on a BlackBerry and provide something that resembles a user experience).

Final thoughts: enterprise take note

In the wake of Facebook's Whats App acquisition, SAP's Sameer Patel wrote a provocative piece entitled What if Facebook made Facebook go away? After noting WhatsApps supported 450 million daily active users with 35 employees, while Facebook needed a whopping 6,300 employees to support 950 million active daily users, Patel turned his thoughts to the enterprise: 'You have to stop and wonder about how much cheaper it has become to build and operate a network-first business, and how this will keep threatening the likes of bloat-ier Facebooks, year after year.'

He went on to say:

Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp is a fascinating, expensive lesson in building complexity, only to then be forced to buy your way back to simplicity. The first step was to buy simplicity. The more important task will be to operate at simplicity. So, what if Facebook Inc made [the complex] Facebook go away? This an uncomfortable but legitimate question to ask.

I hit on this from a different direction in What does the apps-over-browser victory mean to the enterprise? Gist:

Great mobile designs require not only a UX rethink, but a serious snipping of excess functionality and content. Cloud has pushed app design principles headlong into an enterprise UX fervor – not just for mobile users, but for every cubicle. Business expectations have changed – requiring apps to be rolled out and updated quickly. But less than one third of those IT leaders surveyed said their development processes are agile enough for this new reality.

Does enterprise software share the same fate as Google Plus? Not dead like the headlines imply - far from irrelevant - but drastically reinventing?  I wrote this about the enterprise, but I could have easily written it in a Google Plus retrospective:

The completist mentality of traditional enterprise software has become a design liability.

Image credit: sad and depressed businessman and woman © Odua Images - Fotolia.com

Disclosure: SAP is a diginomica partner. Once upon a time, Sameer Patel and I delivered a consulting gig on collaboration together.

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