Millions of Gmail users opened their inboxes today to find a new — and mysterious — feature waiting for them: Google Buzz.
Buzz, in short, is Google’s major entry into the social media sphere. The feature, built right into every Gmail account, is designed to facilitate communication among friends (more on its key selling points are packaged in a convenient Google video here). But the basic takeaway is that the service is like an RSS feed that compiles social media services — from Picasa to Twitter — all in one easy place, either online or on your phone, while enhancing Gmail’s threaded conversations with new multimedia features.
Despite Google’s efforts to streamline Buzz integration into the everyday user experience (Buzz even automatically adds friends to your Buzz contacts list based on who you regularly email, which, depending on who you ask, is either convenient or scary), many have found the new feature a little overwhelming.
Just as they did last year with the release last year of Google Wave — a supposedly game-changing method of communication that would ‘kill e-mail’ — some are also wondering if this release is really a necessary addition to the social media world. Just about the only thing that anyone casually uses the once-vaunted Google Wave for right about now is producing moderately amusing videos featuring Samuel L. Jackson, like this one.
Unfortunate though it may be for Google, the pessimists and cynics might be on to something. Now that Buzz is available for most Gmail users, analysts and everyday users are weighing in. And they don’t like what they see.
Problem #1: Its user base is too small.
Buzz works with Gmail accounts and only with Gmail accounts. As wonderful as Google’s email service is, it’s still used only by a tiny fraction of Web users and isn’t as popular as Facebook or even Hotmail. This is a key sticking point for a service that hopes to involve as many people as possible to build the buzz, and it all but prevents Buzz from achieving widespread adoption by enterprise users, most of whom don’t use Gmail accounts during the workday.
“If this is Google going after Facebook and Twitter for social messaging then they missed the boat,” said Tyler Dikman, president and CEO of CoolTronics, a Tampa, Fla. solution provider. “Buzz has no social networking buzz because it is limited to Gmail users. That’s about one percent of the email market. Google has cut themselves out of 99 percent of the social networking market. That’s a big mistake.”
It’s worth noting that Google Wave has found most of its niche applications thus far in helping consolidate communication among professionals working together on projects.
Problem #2. Facebook’s doing it, minus Big Brother.
Facebook recently launched Global Facebook Chat, which has support for the Jabber protocol and XMPP protocol. Those are supported by major instant messaging programs, including iChat, Pidgin, and Adium. The bottom line is that Facebook — a site with a 400-million-strong and utterly addicted user base, as compared with Gmail’s 150 million — now allows its members to chat with the IM world at large from within Facebook. It’s one less reason to use Google for chatting, especially since most people see Gmail (as its name implies) primarily as a mail service and look to Facebook for networking.
There’s a reason for that, too, and part of it is that people already feel they give Google too much of their personal information (Facebook has had its own share of privacy problems over the years, though most have been resolved as it’s matured). Less than 24 hours after Buzz launched, privacy problems have already popped up with the new service.
Reports PC World:
At issue is a feature that compiles a list of the Gmail contacts who users most frequently e-mail or chat with. Buzz automatically starts following these people and makes the list public, meaning strangers can see who Buzz users have been in contact with.
The issue was noted by the Silicon Alley Insider on Wednesday. “Imagine … a wife discovering that her husband emails and chats with an old girlfriend,” the Web site said. “Imagine a boss discovers a subordinate emails with executives at a competitor.”
Google strongly disputes that account.
“It is something that we did for the users, because we wanted them to log into Buzz, and feel like it just worked,” Google spokeswoman Victoria Katsarou told The Daily Caller. Katsarou noted that users can opt-out of the automatic public listing of followed users when they first start Buzz, so careful users don’t have privacy concerns to worry about.
“It’s a big misrepresentation” to say otherwise, said Katsarou, who sent over screenshots to show how easy the opt-out process is.
“When you first start using Buzz, we show you which people you’re set to automatically follow,” she explained. “So if you’re automatically followed to anyone they’d rather not follow, it’s easy to remove these individuals by clicking on the “edit” link and then clicking “unfollow” next to their names.”
Katsarou has also pointed us to a new Google blog post that outlines several of the changes made post-launch in response to these privacy concerns.
Side note: It’s great that Google was so quick to call us back when we asked about this — a rep got in touch with us on the phone in the middle of the night (at 12:30 AM), only twenty minutes after we asked for comment by email. What’s not so great is that the company doesn’t provide that same phone support to customers who shelled out for the $600 Nexus One smartphone, which Google sells. In fact, the company only recently added the option to call in with questions this week — but you can only contact Google with concerns about order status, and only during limited hours.
Problem #3. Where’s the buzz? (No, seriously.)
Say what you will about Google Wave, but the bombed project had a lot more buzz (can…not…resist!) than Google Buzz, which is rolling out with comparatively little fanfare. Sure, now-mega-corps like Facebook started out small, as invitation-only services that only operated on college campuses and didn’t receive major attention for several months. But initial reactions to Facebook, such as they were, were substantially more positive than what we’re seeing with Buzz.
“The overall volume of chatter is running at about half that for the Nexus One launch and one tenth that of the iPad,” wrote Parnassus Group founder Steve Broback in an e-mail to the LA Times.
Granted, Google Buzz is currently the #1 trending search on Twitter. But much of that traffic stems from confusion about the service. “What the hell is Google Buzz?” asks one user. “I hate Google Buzz already,” tweets jurimyoo. “Google Buzz is terrifying,” says another, who we could probably interest in one of these T-shirts.
Of course, in Tech Land, it’s never easy to pronounce something DOA unless it’s in a slightly mishandled package from Hewlett-Packard. But, for now, indications aren’t great for Google’s new service.
(Video contains explicit language, but it’s still buzz-able)