On July 7, the empire struck back: Facebook announced that it had partnered with Skype to create a new video-chat feature for Facebook users.
"The truth is, you have to be easy to use," says Bryan Gonzalez, director of the social-media lab at the University of Southern California's Entertainment and Technology Center. "As technology becomes more complex, users stay the same. And why should we expect them to keep up? They're buying these products. They don't want to have to read a 500-page manual to learn how to use them."
Skype lets you make audio and video phone calls via the Web, mostly for free, and cheap over-the-Web calls to landlines. Around since 2003, it's a relative graybeard in the Web world. And it has more than 660 million registered users. "But more people would have used this great product," Gonzalez says, "if you didn't have all the user-name and sign-in protocols. People want to get at it and use it without that fussiness." Now Facebook users have it - all 750 million-plus of them.
"Facebook is trying to increase its ubiquity," says Gonzalez, "and the stickiness of the site." (Translation: the ability of a website to make the user stay longer.)
Google+ is by invitation only right now, a "soft" or limited release. "That's part of the excitement," says Casey Osborn, 23, who works at a nonprofit in Center City. "It's interesting to be part of something in its beginning stages."
Zack Wiener, 21, a Swarthmore student who lives in Baltimore, says: "It's one of those things where I said, 'Well, if everyone's hopping on the bandwagon, I'll do it, too.' It's interesting, but still very much in the works."
It's also an aggressive bid to fill some gaps in Facebook. Such was the stampede to try the test version of Google+ that the site momentarily ran out of disk space. It had 10 million registered users two weeks later.
Trip Chowdhry, senior analyst at Global Equities Research, is impressed: "Facebook looks like a high school dropout's work when compared to the polish and crispness of Google Plus." How so? "One of the biggest problems with Facebook," he says, "is how cluttered it has become over the years," which can confuse both users and advertisers. Google+ is going for simple - and that's a look that could make money.
All its doodads - such as Circles, Sparks, Huddles, and Hangout - give users more control over the universe of their friends. Instead of sharing all your info with all your friends all the time, you can create discrete "Circles" and shape what you share according to Circle. "Sparks" let you collect info and news about your interests. "Huddle" lets some mobile users instant-message with their Circles.
"These key features are actually very simple. Simplicity wins," Chowdhry says. "Google has understood that people want more control."
Osborn says control is what she appreciates. "The design of Google+ is beautiful and streamlined, but it's pretty much the same as Facebook," she says. "What I like most is how it's based on the premise that you might have friends of differing levels of intensity, that not all your friends will be in your inner circle, which bothered me about Facebook. I like being able to tailor my circles and my sharing."
Both Wiener and Osborn speculate that Google will face some of the same privacy concerns Facebook has had to address. Osborn says, "I worry about Google having its hands on all my personal information."
Wiener says, "I have multiple modes of representing myself online, in terms of formality. Google+ is somewhere between Facebook and LinkedIn. My LinkedIn is like my resumé, my work experience, my academic interests, and Facebook is my social side. Google+ seems somewhere in the middle."
Facebook isn't done yet. Founder Mark Zuckerberg, asked about group video chats, says he's "ruling nothing out." He also has said little about Google+.
But he does have an account! Last week he was the most popular single person on Google+, with about 30,000 followers.
Contact staff writer John
Timpane at firstname.lastname@example.org, 215-854-4406, or @jtimpane