Can Google Leverage Android to Make Google+ a Success?

I am not an industry insider. I do not have sources "familiar with the matter." I'm just a Google fan that enjoys keeping an eye on the industry and sees a lot of untapped potential. While I realize Google+ is a marathon rather than a sprint for the Big G, I've been disappointed with the adoption rate thus far among my own friends and other interesting people I wouldn't mind following. The ties that people have to Facebook appear to be too strong for most to break, even though the relationship is often abusive (privacy issues, unintuitive and unnecessary UI changes, etc.).

The one ace up Google’s sleeve is Android. Smartphones are a huge growth segment and the majority of consumers are choosing Android, both in the U.S. and worldwide. Recent reports from Nielson place Android’s U.S. smartphone share at 43%, with 56% of consumers in the last three months choosing Android as their OS. These numbers are simply astronomical, with the next closest competitor (Apple’s iOS) lagging behind at 28% for both measurements. Google is at the helm of this juggernaut, but it hasn’t yet harnessed its potential to bolster its fledgling social network even though Vic Gundotra, the man leading Google’s social efforts, gave the following quote to Wired: “We’re transforming Google itself into a social destination at a level and scale that we’ve never attempted — orders of magnitude more investment, in terms of people, than any previous project.”

I am aware that Google+ is still a very young service and Google likely has ambitious plans that are hidden from the public. I am also aware that Google has rolled out some features that harness some of Android’s potential, such as Instant Upload, Latitude check ins, and Messaging (fka Huddles). However, these services assume you are already using Google+ and do little to drive adoption of the social network. The untapped potential in Android is almost incomprehensibly vast, yet Google has thus far failed to reap its benefits.

The following are a few examples of how Google can leverage Android to make Google+ a truly unique and compelling social service, not just a Facebook/Twitter mashup as it has so often been called. They are not entirely unique as they have almost all been implemented by Facebook or Apple. It’s Google’s reach that makes them different. On their own, none of these changes are likely compelling enough to make much of a difference in adoption. As a collection, however, they provide a feature rich and compelling package that just might sway some of the Facebook diehards from their beloved social network.

Google has a music streaming service currently in beta, the aptly named Music Beta by Google. The service allows you to upload your digital music files for streaming to your Android device via an app, or to any device with a web browser using a web app. There are obvious parallels here to what Facebook has done with Spotify and Rdio. Google can (and should) implement something similar with its own music service, albeit with the finely tuned and intuitive privacy controls Google+ is known for. In its current state, Google could implement some way for people to browse a Music Beta user’s music collection, create notifications when a user adds a song/album to their online locker, etc. Unfortunately, in order to make Music Beta/Google+/Android a “must have” combo, Google would need to negotiate licensing deals with record labels (hopefully this is already in the works). Once licensing deals are in place, I can imagine a “Now Playing” notification or section on a user’s Google+ page that updates when a user plays a track from their Android phone that allows other Google+ users to listen along. Another no-brainer would be the ability to play songs from your Music Beta locker during a Hangout, much like you can currently do with YouTube videos. Users could also have the option to share a track they are listening to on their Android phone to their stream, directly from the Android app, allowing other Google+ users to listen to it at their leisure.

Google Voice
A Google Voice user should be able to have a place on their Google+ profile page where other Google+ users can type and send a text directly to their Google Voice number. Obviously this feature would be limited to only the circles approved by the Google Voice user. At first this might seem a bit unnecessary since Google Talk and Google+ Messaging (fka Huddles) already offer duplicate functionality. However, the Google Voice solution would be ideal for users of the service that do not have a smartphone to receive Google Talk and Messaging notifications. It would also be a boon to iOS users who do not have a native Google Talk app. It could also be useful for people or companies to set up Google Voice numbers as mailboxes and use the text function collect customer support inquiries or feedback that they can respond to at their leisure. It’s more personal than email and less “live” than chat or messaging services. I’m sure other applications that I can’t even fathom also exist. It would be a small, but welcome addition that further strengthens the ties between Google+ and Google’s other popular services.

Android Market
Google already has an amazing web based Android Market that lets users purchase and install apps on their phones without even touching them simply by clicking “install” on the web client. Google+ users should be able to share Android apps to their stream from their phone or the web market. Their Google+ friends could then read what their friends say about the app and purchase and/or install it directly from Google+ without being kicked to the web based market.

If implemented correctly, this could be a significant boon to the Google+/Android combo. Google+ recently received a game section not unlike Facebook’s game section. It is currently populated with a limited number of flash games. For this to work, Google would need to create a cloud gaming service like OpenFeint or Apple’s Game Center. The service would need to keep track of high scores at a bare minimum, but would hopefully also allow live and asynchronous multiplayer, all of which would be linked to the user’s Google account. Apple does this with Game Center, but an Apple ID is not nearly as useful or far reaching as a Google Account if only for the Gmail-sized elephant in the room. Game Center scores are also not socially relevant outside of Apple’s ecosystem (which does not include a social network). High scores on Android games that use Google’s game service would appear in the Games section of Google+ and would be visible to the user’s circles, but the real draw would be multiplayer between an Android device and a Google+ user on a desktop web browser. The game in question would need to have both Android and web versions, and games that use smartphone specific features (accelerometers, for example) would require a bit of extra work on the developer’s part.

Cross platform gaming on this scale is obviously much easier said than done, but the groundwork is already in place. Android apps are written in Java using the Android SDK, or in C/C++ using the Android NDK. Java is used all over the web and Google recently rolled out Native Client for Chrome that allows the browser to run native code. I’m not a programmer, but on the surface Android and the web are at least superficially compatible. Keep in mind that Google (with the aid of open source software, of course) wrote the code for Android, the SDK, the NDK, the Dalvik virtual machine and Native Client. It also wrote the code for the Chrome web browser and Google+ itself. If RIM can create a client that runs Android applications on the Blackberry Playbook, surely Google, with its complete control over every part of the stack, can do the same for the web. I would likely take the form of a plugin or addition to the Android SDK/NDK that does most of the heavy lifting for the developer to create both Android and web versions of its app, with only minor tweaks (such as keyboard/mouse control for the web version) being needed to support both. Because games purchased on Android are tied to the user’s Google account, the developer could offer the Google+ version for free with the purchase of the Android version. Alternatively, the developer could support the Google+ version with ads and keep it free regardless of any Android purchases.

It’s a lot of work with far too many “maybe”s and “if only”s, I know, but Google is also pushing its Chrome Apps store for the Chrome Browser and Chrome OS, and this would allow them to grow that store as well. It sounds a bit outlandish at first, but actually isn’t that farfetched to think that Google might do something like this in the future, and it absolutely should.

This is already possible on Android using apps like Qik, but it seems like a natural evolution of Hangouts to bake this functionality into Google+. The user could start a livestream using their Android phone’s camera and microphone, and the circles selected by the user would get notifications that a live stream has started. The user’s Google+ friends could then watch the live stream from their phones or their computers. Google recently announced Hangouts On Air which appear to be what I just described, but there are limitations to the number of people who can view the stream (nine), and you have to start the stream from the desktop client and then join from your smartphone. Hopefully Google is working on building Hangouts directly into the Google+ app. As it is, my most desired use case, broadcasting a concert or performance to my friends directly from my phone, doesn’t appear to be possible.

Google Calendar (Thanks Benjamin Meiers)
Google Calendar is not Android specific and existed long before the T-Mobile G1, but it is the default calendar for all android phones. Even if only half of all Android users utilized Google Calendar on their phones (a conservative estimate), that still equates to countless millions of users with more added every day simply because they have Android phones. The Android client also integrates seamlessly with the web client. Events calendared on your phone immediately appear on the web client and vice versa. Reminders also sync seamlessly. Google already has social functionality built into calendar, allowing users to set their calendar events as private or public. Google Calendar integration into Google+ is perhaps the biggest no-brainer on this list. Google has already shown that it can integrate its products together in an intuitive way, and events are a notable absence when comparing Google+ to Facebook. Being able to invite Google+ friends to events, just as Facebook allows, and having those events immediately show up on your Android phone as soon as you confirm your attendance would be a huge boon to the Google+ user base. And like Google Voice, it would further strengthen the ties between Google's popular products and Google+, winning over more users in the process.

There are plenty of other ways Android’s dominant market position can help Google+. I truly believe Google+ is a great service, and superior to Facebook. I want it to succeed as badly as Google does, but Facebook’s deeply entrenched and massive user base makes that an uphill battle, even for an internet giant like Google. Google has the cards. Hopefully it plays them.
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