Is Google+ a closed platform? (Among other issues.)

I realise it’s rather unusual for me to write two articles in a row about the same topic, but I feel I need to complete my previous list of initial impressions about Google’s new social networking service.

So far, of course, as I write this, astonishingly, Google+ is still invitation-only, meaning that non tech-savvy users wanting to open an account still get redirected to a waiting list—in other words, so far, Google+ has been reserved for geeks.

Google+, thus far, is explicitly positioning itself as a closed platform.

But more annoyingly—and pretty incredibly, because I would not have expected such arrogance from Google—Google+ is clearly positioning itself as a closed platform—much more closed than Facebook.

Although you can link to a Google+ post, manually, by copy/pasting its link elsewhere, the process isn’t automated, as it is in Friendfeed or even in Facebook [i]. You simply can’t import anything into Google+ except by posting about it manually. From that perspective, Google+ is a pretty massive step backwards and, curiously, no one has complained about that. One possible answer to my objection is that Google Buzz, last year’s failed attempt by Google at entering the social segment, has discreetly been integrated into Google+, in the form of a tab where all your Buzz noise will be visible publicly—as it had been, as part of your Google Profile, ever since the feature was launched.

I assume Google chose to keep Buzz separate from the main Google+ ‘Posts’ tab because for most Buzz users, that service had become little more than a lifestream—a repository for the rest of their online presence—despite the fact that you could, and still can, post original content in Buzz, exactly in the same way as you now can in Google+. But the noise from the stuff imported from third-party platforms would have been distracting—so despite the obvious duplication, Google chose to keep both tabs running concurrently, instead of removing the ability to post original content in Buzz, and clearly designating the latter as the lifestreaming component of Google+, which would have been a much smarter choice—and also a way of finally giving Buzz the niche it never succeeded in finding previously.

The closed nature of Google+ is especially noticeable with photos: there’s simply no way of automatically linking to an outside photo service in the ‘Photos’ tab (I’m thinking of Flickr, still the best photo storage service despite being ineptly mismanaged by Yahoo ever since the latter acquired it), and you have to import everything you want to display in that tab into Picasa (whose name hasn’t yet been changed despite Google’s stated intention to rebrand it as Google Photos). Fortunately, there is a tool for (manually) importing photos into Picasa from Facebook, and another—which I haven’t tested—for importing into Picasa from Flickr. But that’s still no substitute for automated imports, implying that Google wants to force you to switch all your photos to Picasa, despite it being a much poorer user experience, in many ways, than Flickr.

As Google has—deliberately, one can safely presume—failed to communicate clearly about how Buzz and Google+ are meant to play together, the result is pretty confusing at best. There would have been an easy way of making Google+ open: explicitly merge Google+ and Buzz, communicate about it and get users into the habit of using Buzz as a lifestream of imported content, if they want one, for stuff they generate on other platforms: but at present, Google’s rather arrogant assumption is that users will want to switch to Google+ for all their online presence, and post everything from within their service—surely a totally closed platform by any definition.

Vanity URLs: will Google+ ever be able to pull them off?

Another subject about which, thus far, Google has been curiously uncommunicative has been user names. My Google+ url, for instance, is the rather impractical https://plus.google.com/115489052742572881451/. On Facebook, on the other hand, you can choose any vanity URL of your choice, subject to availability.

The delightfully superficial Kevin Rose (who has decided, on a whim, to ditch his blog and redirect his domain name to his Google+ account) suddenly posted, a few days ago, that his ‘Google+ feature wish list’ included ‘Vanity URLs, eg. plus.google.com/kevinrose’

There are two problems with this.

Until now, all the services Google has offered have been linked to one’s Google username and necessarily tied to a Google account—the ‘you’ component in the you@gmail.com mail address that always goes with your account and is used to sign in to any Google service. This resulted in pretty massive privacy issues when Google launched Buzz where, among other problems, your gmail address could be deduced from your Buzz username.

By obstinately sticking with this system, Google is needlessly creating problems for itself. As Eric Schonfeld pointed out at the time of the Buzz fiasco:

The danger in creating an instant social network around email contacts, as Google Buzz does with Gmail, is that the boundaries between what is private and what is public are not always clear.

Whereas in Facebook your username is not in any way tied to your login credentials (which are always an email address, and can’t be a you@facebook.com address), Google+ is now stuck with an unworkable system, in which most user names have already been taken and many are actually dormant (kevinrose@gmail.com, for instance, isn’t available, although one can hope that its existing owner is the ‘real’ Mr Rose and not a less illustrious namesake: thus if another Kevin Rose has once signed up for a Gmail accounts, years ago, and he hasn’t used it since, our Kevin Rose won’t be able to use that username with a hypothetical Google+ vanity URL, until Google throw in the towel and finally give up tying user names to Gmail login credentials).

You can’t use Google+ with a Google Apps account

One final peeve one can have with Google+ accounts is that they are simply not available for the growing number of people with Google Apps accounts. If you try to sign up for Google+ using Google Apps, Google unashamedly displays this:

Oops… you need a Google profile to use this feature. Google Profiles is not available for your organization.

Google has been grappling with the issue of distinguishing between standard Google accounts (e.g., you@gmail.com and Google Apps accounts (e.g., you@yourdomain.com) for years, and been getting essentially nowhere. Some services (including, apparently, Google+), are still not available if you’re using Google Apps for your email, meaning that, like I had to do, you have to create a dummy Gmail account just in order to use them). Google’s support page on the subject is an incomprehensible piece of mumbo-jumbo, essentially reflecting the muddle in which they are on the subject.

All in all, my current feeling is that it’s pretty astonishing that Google has thrown so much energy into the Google+ project over the past few months and come up with a service displaying such blatant conceptual flaws. One can hope they will be addressed, because, as I said in an earlier post, Google+ has a lot going for it. But essentially, at present I doubt the traction its beginning to get with nerds will spread to a broader user segment, or even be sustained for much longer.

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  1. Despite Facebook clearly not liking it very much and pretty openly discouraging one from doing so, it’s been possible, for quite a long time, to automatically import items from blogs, Flickr, Google Reader or Twitter, among other services, into one’s Facebook feed or that of a page. []