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Monday, February 7, 2011

The Rise of Facebook – And Why Google Is Worried.

The recent change of command at the Google headquarters has made one thing clear – that Google, for the first time in its history, is rattled and has acknowledged a serious competition to its decade-long dominance over the internet. With erstwhile CEO Eric Schmidt making way for the notoriously media shy Larry Page, Google sent out the clearest signals that there has been a clear shift in Google’s strategy, and that it is going to be more pronounced in coming days. 

From the heady days of redefining the internet and becoming one of the greatest companies in the world, to a time when the Google trio of Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt was the most formidable group in Silicon Valley, Google met with plenty of obstacles and successfully overcame them. 
In the beginning, Google, like the proverbial David, took on the reigning rulers of the information technology world (read Microsoft) and took away first their internet search business, followed by the web-based mails and then the Browser Wars and forced Microsoft to concentrate on their core competencies of Operating Systems and Enterprise applications. The next victims of the Google juggernaut were the web-based instant-messaging clients like yahoo messenger and msn messenger who faded into oblivion thanks to the pristinely simple and effective Google Talk.
This and a host of innovative products like Android, Google News, Google Earth and Blogger ensured that Google was the first word that popped into a user’s mind the moment they logged onto the internet for anything. The Google impact was so strong that internet browsing and searching for information started being referred to as “Googling”.

During the course of its journey, Google also ran into issues with governments and legal agencies over screening of its search results and sometimes over privacy issues, especially for services like Google Maps. Detractors called its motto a fa├žade, its technical capability a sham and its business strategy directionless, but Google kept flying high. On the power of amazing technical innovations, great user experience, smart revenue-generation mechanisms, strategic takeovers and a largely unblemished reputation, the prices of Google’s stocks consistently performed way ahead of the competition.

Google, during its expansion from a two-member Stanford dorm-room company to a 24,000 plus California corporate house, also had its share of poaching allegations but kept attracting the best talent from all over the globe and kept being named as one of the best places to work. Everything seemed perfect. 

Then, a curly-haired, 20-something kid from Harvard arrived on the scene.

The web2.0 revolution made one thing clear. The days of static web pages and sponsored content were over. This age was defined by the generation that had grown up with the internet and wanted to and could generate its own content online. I have always felt that this was something that many companies, Google included, failed to read early. True, Google created Orkut and did meet with some success in the non-US market; and Myspace did enjoy considerable success in the early part of the last decade, something was always missing in the way these products reached out to their users. 
Essentially, Google was, and remains till date, a search company. It’s great at creating crawlers that would read the entire World Wide Web and its pockets so that you can have just the information you want in a fraction of a second, free of cost, but I’m not sure how well Google reads its users and their social trends.

To say that Facebook just happens to enjoy a colossal stroke of luck is to do a bit of disservice to the man behind it. Facebook has proved that at the end of the day, people don’t just want information, they want to share it. I think it’s the second-best example of how user-generated content is preferred by users over organization-generated content, the best example being of course, Wikipedia. And after all, isn’t that what the internet was meant for- sharing information?

Facebook and Zuck (Mark Zuckerberg) didn’t really start off wishing to change the world. On the contrary, Zuck just wanted his friends to look at pictures of girls and vote if they thought the girl was “Hot” or “Not”. In a way, this was an example of the brilliance of Mr. Zuckerberg when it came to, among other things, knowing what people wanted. Today Facebook has over 600 million active users signed up with it who are talking, sharing, watching, planning and, potentially carrying billions of dollars of revenue for anyone who gets their attention.

Somewhat unwittingly, facebook has made a dent in Google’s throne. Google, for a while now, has been struggling to get its social networking business up to a standard where it can be called a Google business without sounding apologetic. It tried first with Orkut which could not take one blow from Facebook and then with the biggest dud in the history of Google – the Google Wave.

Though it still had search, and image sharing, and YouTube and Gmail and gtalk, the day Facebook surpassed Google to become the most visited website in the world, Google knew this was no stroke of luck – this was different.

If you are an active Facebook and Google user like me, you might not have even realized that we don’t really search Google for weather updates, film/restaurants reviews, and holiday planning anymore. We don’t even upload our pictures on Picasa or videos on YouTube. Heck! We don’t even ping our friends on gtalk! 
Why? Because all that is already there by them on Facebook! The gateway to the internet for a user is no longer Google, it’s Facebook. And when Facebook recently refurbished its messaging service to extend functionalities offered it made clear that Facebook is going to rewrite emailing too.

Gradually, step-by-step, and while Google was happily sleeping in its Ivory Tower, Facebook has become the new destination of choice for netizens. The IPO frenzy that Facebook’s IPO plans caused resulted in the IPO being postponed altogether. Mark Zuckerberg has been named the Time Person of the Year 2010. The movie “The Social Network” based on Zuck’s life is nominated in 8 categories for the Academy Awards and has already won the Golden Globe for Best Picture. Users are organizing trips, meetings and even revolutions on Facebook- Facebook is everywhere! Just the way once Google was.

How Larry Page – so far the man “behind” most of Google’s innovation and products takes upon arguably the toughest challenge of his illustrious career remains to be seen. But one thing is certain- that we are going to see plenty of action in the coming days from both the sides. In a way, it’s good to have competition as that’s how you keep moving. But every time something like this happens, I wonder if David and Goliath are really two different characters of just two different phases in the life of the same entity!