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Google's Facebook: It rocks, but who cares?

Better isn't always better

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Open...and Shut The geek alit are abuzz with the NEXT! NEW! THING! It's called Google Plus (Google+), and my inbox is peppered with notifications that I've been added to so-and-so's Circle. Unfortunately, I'm already connected with many of these people on Facebook. More unfortunately, I've never heard of some of the people that have been adding me.

Most unfortunately, it's not clear that a critical mass of people outside the tech world is going to bother setting up their social networks outside of Facebook. Why would they?

This isn't an argument that Google+ is functionally weak, or ill-conceived. It's neither. Google, despite some early problems with Buzz and other efforts, seems to have delivered an excellent product.

But the question is whether it's different enough to justify the bother of someone - an average, mainstream someone - starting over again. Chris Matyszczyk doesn't think so, and he's right.

We've seen this movie before. The open source-inspired Project Diaspora is trying to up-end Facebook by providing better privacy controls and allowing users to control their data. It's still in alpha and unlikely to catch on. It turns out that the mainstream seems perfectly content to entrust its data to Facebook.

Indeed, the tech elite often get this and other consumer interests wrong, because they assume the mainstream shares their concerns. Look at open source Identica. Designed to be the "open Twitter," it has never really gone anywhere because, well, people seem pretty happy with closed Twitter. Why go through the bother of setting up a new identity and regrouping all of one's "followers" on an alternative network? It's just not worth the bother.

Like Plus, like Linux

The Linux desktop also comes to mind. For years, it has been touted as "good enough" and then "more than good enough" and then "excellent." And I believe these claims are all true, in most respects.

But the Linux desktop is still a rounding error in terms of market share. Not because it's not great. But because it doesn't adequately address the question of "Why bother?" It's not enough to be "not Microsoft Windows" as a key selling point.

Apple knows how to answer that question. The iPod wasn't a revolutionary device, but iTunes was a revolutionary way to buy and categorize music. There were smartphones before the iPhone, too, but its end-to-end polish made people think they were somehow special simply by owning one. And Macs? Well, they're gorgeous in a way the more utilitarian PC rarely is.

Will Google+ go the way of HP's WebOS, currently experiencing serious management upheaval? In some respects WebOS is better than iOS, but not in ways that make people say, "I need a WebOS tablet rather than an iPad." It's not good enough, or different enough.

I keep trying to muster up the energy to use Google+ and keep failing. My friends are already on Facebook. My work associates are already on Twitter. I don't really want to have another place to ignore people I don't know and talk to people I do. I already have good tools for this, and I assume that Facebook will simply adopt the best of Google+ into its platform.

Oh, wait. It already has. In summary, as much as I like the idea of Facebook getting serious competition, I think Google is going to need to come up with a better Facebook to justify me and 749,999,999 others dropping it for Google+. It's not an impossible task, but Google+ has yet to demonstrate that it's anything more than a little bit better.

That's not enough.

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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