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Google has updated Gmail with a "social networking" add-on dubbed Google Buzz, a tool for sharing personal info with others à la Facebook and Twitter.

The company has also introduced a mobile version at buzz.google.com - available on the iPhone and Google's own Android platform - and it provides hooks into the service from the Android and iPhone incarnation of Google.com and various mobile versions of Google Maps.

During a press conference this morning announcing the service - broadcast over the web - Google billed Buzz as something that will reinvent social networking in much the same way the company reinvented search in the late 90s.

"There's obviously value with [social networking services]. It is a phenomenon that's real. But increasingly, it's becoming harder to make sense and find the signal in the noise," said director of product management Bradley Horowitz, a day after countless reports indicated that Google would be unveiling some sort of "social" Gmail add-on.

"This is becoming a large-scale problem, a relevance problem. The kind of problem we like at Google. It’s like when we launched Gmail. Today, we're launching Google Buzz, a Google approach to sharing."

The approach has obvious similarities to Facebook and Twitter. You post text and links and photos and videos to others across the web - and they post back to you. But unlike on Facebook and Twitter, you can post both publicly and privately, and as posts from others stream into your browser, Google will flag those that it deems more important than others. That's the "relevance" bit.

Google is already rolling the service out to Gmail users, and it intends to launch an enterprise version at some point in the future. "It will change the way businesses communicate around the world," Horowitz said.

As demonstrated by Gmail product manager Todd Jackson, Google Buzz is accessed via a new Gmail link just below the service's primary "Inbox" link. Using the tool, you can share short bits of info and media - "status updates," in Facebook parlance - with friends and strangers alike. With each post, you can specify whether it will be available to the public at large or only to certain individuals.

Posts can include photos and videos as well as text and links, and you can pull existing content directly from Twitter, Picasa, Flickr, or Google Reader. You cannot output posts to Twitter, but Google says this will be possible in the future.

When you first launch the tool, Buzz automatically identifies your current Gmail and Google Chat contacts as individuals you'd like to receive posts from - people you're "following," in Twitter parlance. In other words, posts from these contacts will appear as a (near) real-time feed within Gmail's Buzz tab.

No browser refresh is required. New posts are pushed to your browser. And you can view photos and videos directly from the feed.

At the same time, when others reply to your posts, these replies are routed to your Gmail inbox. You can also reply to others' posts directly from your inbox, and if you like you can send replies directly to individual users.

Buzz also dovetails with your Google profile. The profile will list your followers - though you have the option of hiding them - and it will show your public posts. And naturally, public posts will be indexed by Google search.

After Jackson's presentation, Google vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra announced a trio of Buzzified services for mobile phones. For Android and iPhone users, the company is offering a standalone (but still browser-based) version of Buzz as well as a version of m.google.com that integrates with the service. And on Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Android phones, the company has hooked the service into Google Maps.

When you access Buzz from the new version of m.google.com, Google attempts to determine your physical location - via GPS and other tools - and then it asks you if the location it chooses is correct. It will use this information to geotag your Buzz posts, so others know where you are.

The mobile incarnation of Google Buzz and the Buzzified version of Google Maps use geotagging in similar fashion. Posts from others will show up within Google Maps, and you can post pics lifted from Maps to Buzz.

Google said that it intends to integrate Buzz with Google Wave, the online collaboration tool currently under test, but it did not provide details. It also said that is working to make Buzz feeds publicly available via its PubSubHubbub open messaging protocol.

Famously, Google lagged behind the likes of Facebook and Twitter in what has become a hugely popular phenomenon. Google launched a social networking service dubbed Orkut in 2004, and though it has been wildly successful in Brazil, it never quite caught on elsewhere. In 2007, the company acquired Twitter rival Jaiku, but last year it ceased official development on the project.

During today's press conference, when Google co-founder Sergey Brin was asked about Google's spotty social networking record, he insisted the company has been successful with such services in the past. "Look at Orkut," he said. And he indicated that Google Buzz would prove to be something very different from what the Tweetbook set is used to. "Other social services focus on entertainment," he said. "I find them useful for productivity." ®

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