Google's Gmail Upgrade: Gunning for Facebook and Twitter

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For the last two years as the real-time social Web has swept the world, Google (GOOG) has watched nervously as upstarts Facebook and Twitter have exploded in popularity. Although Google remains a prodigious moneymaker, it's no longer the anointed Internet prodigy. So, Google is now preparing an assault on Facebook and Twitter with new social tools for Gmail that will likely incorporate rolling status updates and file-sharing capabilities.What took Google so long? For most of its history, Google didn't ride the wave so much as it created the wave. Now someone else is creating the wave, and Google feels compelled to respond. The new Gmail offerings amount to an acknowledgment from Google that it needs to raise the competitive metabolism of its social media efforts.

The new features, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, could be announced as early as Tuesday. Google has called a press conference for 10 a.m. PST when it says it'll be unveiling some product "innovations" in two of its most popular products.

A Hub for Tracking Friends

Until now, Gmail has been primarily an email and instant messaging product, though Google has been slowly rolling out expanded features like video chat. The service currently allows users to post short status updates, one at a time, but the feature is much more limited than Facebook's and Twitter's social tools. Google is likely aiming to turn Gmail into a hub for keeping track of friends, much like Facebook is now.

The company will also integrate YouTube video and Picassa photo sharing into Gmail, The Journal said, allowing users to share media much the way they do on Facebook. The social networking leader now boasts about 400 million users, while Gmail has about 176 million.

But this is no gimme for Google, which has had a rocky road with social products. Its Orkut social networking site misfired in the U.S., though it became popular in other countries, most notably Brazil. Likewise, its FriendConnect and OpenSocial initiatives haven't taken off.

Long Overdue

Google's new features come after it struck a deal with Twitter to start incorporating real-time Twitter posts into Google's ubiquitous Web search product. And in recent weeks, it has created a new "Social Web Team" and brought in a number of high-profile social media experts to spearhead the initiative.

"Google's decided that social is one of its big focuses for 2010, and it's very natural, as the Web is going social," Joseph Smarr, newly hired in February to lead the Google effort, told CNET last week. Smarr is a former executive from Plaxo, a social network owned by Comcast. "I think there's a super-strong amount of eagerness on behalf of everyone at Google to get some fresh ideas and figure out how this is all going to play out, and how they can get there faster and better," he says.

Social and real-time media have been a conspicuous area where Google has struggled -- something unfamiliar and unnerving for a company so used to success. In fact, it's somewhat inexplicable why the company waited this long to mount a challenge to Facebook and Twitter.

Is it too late? Google often gets knocked because it hasn't been able to replicate its stunning performance in Web search in other areas. If the company wants to prove the naysayers wrong, now's the time.
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