As much as people talk about Twitter, we must realize that Twitter is only a tool (or infrastructure as I have argued). It is not a destination that people will focus their attention on for hours of the day. Destinations have been the goal for many startups, but to be a true, complete destination you need to supply a wealth of functionality. The battle for your attention, and which destination you focus on, is ramping up quickly. There seem to be two major players in this battle, Google and Facebook. However, they are taking different routes on their way to the destination.
The Facebook Route
Facebook started as this cool little social networking site for college students. Now, non-technical people like my wife use Facebook for hours at a time. Why did this happen? Basically, Facebook took your “real life” social graph and asked to store it for you so you might be able to find some long lost friends. People love nostalgia, and this really pulled people into the site. Add in some cute games and quizzes, and you have effectively rendered half of the internet obsolete.
So far, this does not sound like much more than a playground. However, look at all of the recent redesign and feature work. The redesigns have all been focused around real time information and making it more pleasing to the mainstream user. They have made sharing information much easier than before, and provided hooks into Twitter as well. People have started to spread rumors regarding the “news feed” features again, so it is very possible that they will start including RSS feed reading in some way soon. In one of the more interesting changes, they cleaned up the Facebook Inbox. The “messaging” features of many applications are typically “bolted on” as an after thought. Facebook’s inbox looked no different. The new design changes this and almost makes it look like a simple email program. If you then add in all of the work with Facebook Connect and the mobile applications, Facebook is trying to ensure that you either never leave Facebook, or you take your Facebook identity with you everywhere.
The Google Route
Google may be headed for the same destination, but their route is definitely starting from a different direction. Google started as a search company and has been adding new applications for years. One of the earliest applications they built was GMail. Everyone uses email in some way, so Google decided to create an email service that worked a little different than normal, using tags not folders, and provide it for free. In addition to email, we now have a wealth of “office” functionality from Google. GMail is slowly moving into the “Outlook” space by integrating Google Calendar, Contacts and Tasks. We also have Google Docs, which can be bundled with GMail to create Google Apps, an application suite offering for people and businesses trying to get away from the traditional Microsoft offerings.
Like Facebook, this was all nice functionality, but it has been the more recent developments that make this interesting. About a year ago, Google released Chrome, initially thought to be just a new browser, but now being seen as the basis for a Google operating system, ChromeOS. So, we can start to see the grand plan from Google, where all of your applications are cloud based and conveniently run best when using their operating system. Another company took this direction a long time ago and is still making boatloads of money from it.
However, Google realized that it did not have much of a handle on the social media space. So, we get a redesigned contact management application, iGoogle (their personalized homepage) gets social-enabled gadgets, Google Reader gets a bunch of new social features, and Google Docs adds some simpler sharing features. Lastly, we have Google Wave which is meant as a totally disruptive communications tool. It is taking email, Twitter, threaded conversations from sites like FriendFeed, and mashing it all together to create something completely different. In addition to combining all of the communications features, it takes your original social graph, your email contacts, basically converts them into a social network like Facebook.
So, Facebook is trying to get closer to a real email client and generally be the only site you visit on any given day. Google already has your email, but wants to provide all of the functionality you could possibly need and make it all social for you. Both companies know that communication is the key to winning. If they provide the easiest and best communications tools, they will likely become the destination of choice.
The real question is whether there is something missing. Is there some key piece of functionality that we do not have yet that could make either of them the clear winner? Is there some other player in this game that could overtake them? Can a small startup find some way to compete? Personally, I think there is enough functionality in both sites that raises the barrier to entry far too high for a small startup. I also do not think Twitter can compete as they are not focused on adding a bunch of features, and really just trying to stabilize. Yahoo is probably one of the few companies with the manpower and the traffic to compete, but they are trying to find their focus. Is there anyone else?