Google is trying to ensure that you never leave GMail. Besides GMail being a fantastic email service, Google has continuously added features to keep you engaged. We have chat in GMail and various widgets like Google Calendar to add functionality. We also recently saw a cool revamp of the Contacts application which really did need some help. So, it should come as no surprise that Google Voice is being integrated as well. Initially, this is not a full integration, it is an addition to the chat feature to allow for VOIP calls, but it will use Google Voice if you use it:

If you have a Google Voice phone number, calls made from Gmail will display this number as the outbound caller ID. And if you decide to, you can receive calls made to this number right inside Gmail (see instructions).

I know I wrote about the continuous Google Me rumors recently, and the VOIP integration seemed like a logical extension at the time.

Social features are starting to permeate all of Google’s products. Lots of products are getting mobile updates. Even the Contacts application has been recently and nicely revamped. What if all of these changes are really related to Google’s new social push and Google Me?

Given this idea, the VOIP inclusion with the contacts updates still just seemed like a small move in a bigger plan. The recent release of GMail Priority Inbox has me thinking that there might be a different direction:

Priority Inbox splits your inbox into three sections: “Important and unread,” “Starred” and “Everything else”

Granted, this seems like a logical extension to GMail and a good way to deal with the flood of information that people receive daily. The only problem with this is that GMail and its inbox has not changed in years. I had always figured this was one of those “sacred” areas that could not be touched. Priority Inbox is not a small adjustment either. Partitioning your inbox into 3 sections based upon importance is definitely a Google thing to do, but it is a fairly big change. In addition to the basic concept, the inbox learns as you use it:

Over time, Priority Inbox gets better at predicting what’s important to you. You can help train it using the Priority Inbox buttons buttons.

So, this likely means that this change is part of a bigger plan as well. By including VOIP, text chat, email priorities and a vastly improved contacts manger, GMail has become your communications hub. Google is obviously taking many chances to increase your engagement. If you include Google Buzz in this equation, you can see the makings of a social network. If you look at this from the Google Me perspective, why put this much work into GMail when you will push people to Google Me in the hopefully near future? That seems fairly short-sighted or there is no communication within Google projects. Or there is another option.

Some people have been arguing that email is the first social network. What if your email program became your new social network? What if those changes to Orkut were really a way to move it closer to GMail? Let’s look at the feature list I wrote about for Google Me:

  • Messaging provided by GMail
  • IM provided by Google Talk
  • Google Buzz integrated with the basic status updates on the network
  • Orkut, new and improved with social circles provides the core social network features and a platform to build upon
  • Google Docs integration so that you can share documents with specific social circles
  • Picasa integration so that you can share pictures with specific social circles
  • Wave integration so that a specific social circle can have real-time collaboration features.
  • Latitude integration in order to share location information with specific social circles

Messaging is already provided by GMail, and it has IM integration. Google Buzz has already been integrated with GMail, but not entirely thrust in your face yet. Social circles could likely be inferred from your email history within GMail. GMail has integration with Google Docs. The real-time collaboration features would be an interesting addition to GMail, may be more successful there because there is not a new contacts list to create and it deals with people you already collaborate with. Latitude integration would be the only tricky thing to include as the integration has to be done very carefully. If it gets pushed through Buzz, then Google would be following the Foursquare/Gowalla route. If it has deeper integration with your social circles and email, then it could be more like Facebook Places and promote more serendipitous meetings. That is one of the greater potential benefits of social location services.

I am not sure if Google is really making GMail your next social network, but there is a lot of work that seems to be moving it in that direction. It could be that Google Me is just a name for GMail 2.0.

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