Ahmad Faizal Yahya/Shutterstock
“Google Is About to Let Total Strangers Email You,” a tech site warned.
Imagine my total lack of alarm, given that, best as I can tell, total strangers can already contact me if they can find my email address, which isn’t too hard since it’s listed publicly in plenty of places.
OMG strangers! was just one of many strong reactions to the news that Google was opting Gmail users in to a confusing new feature. Here’s how it works: Google+ users that you have added to a G+ circle (its version of following) will be able to message you in Gmail without needing your email address. These messages will look like email, but will appear in a Social tab, not your main inbox. Within Gmail, you can disable this feature completely or open it to all G+ users, depending on whether you’re an Inbox Zero or Inbox Million type of person.
Given some of Google’s past aggressiveness in trying to solve “social,” the vox populi saw this feature as an attempt to force people onto G+. In reality, bridge-building between these two services tells us a great deal about how Google management envisions the future of identity and communications.
1. G+’s real value is as a login platform, on and off Google properties
Forget all those +1s and the photo-sharing nonsense (what did happen to the photos I had on Picasa?). This is about getting you to log into Google services. Go back a few years — Google had siloed data on you via Gmail, but most of their products you used without ever sharing an identity. Now they have one account, most likely using your “real name” and a single targeting cookie. Google’s not a search company, it’s a data company. And unified profiles give it so much more usable data.
The same trend is accelerating outside of Google-owned properties. Janrain reported that 35 percent of social login on third-party services is occurring via Google Accounts. This is no doubt helped by the growth of Android and consumer fear that logging in with Facebook will lead to sharing of information with their friends.
2. Communication is about permissions, not email addresses, phone numbers or addresses
Here’s what I think the integration of Gmail and G+ messaging is really about: Making communications about people and permissions, rather than possession of contact info.
If Google Voice was about having a single number attached to you rather than a specific device, then Gmail with G+ is about establishing a relationship graph between two people, and facilitating communications via whatever mode makes sense based upon any number of criteria — permissions, preferences, number of people, reason for communication. It’s why Gmail + Gchat + G+ Hangouts are all merging into a single interface.
I don’t think Google is alone in perceiving this shift. Facebook has tried to integrate more on-platform communication types into its product, but really only Messenger has worked. (Remember Facebook Video Chat powered by Skype? Or Facebook email addresses?)
Current generations of kids aren’t going to have to worry about knowing your phone number or email or street address. They’ll be able to press your name or picture, and depending on the app or need, will initiate a text, call, delivery, whatever. Twitter has been experimenting with various DM permissioning. And why do you think Snapchat’s user base didn’t care much when phone numbers leaked? Because the phone number is the least personal data on a phone, compared to your text messages, photos or other app data.
My bet is that a year from now, G+ will be much more about communications, with content sharing as part of the interaction, rather than a social stream. If you were building Gmail and G+ from scratch today, they’d be the same product. And that’s the logic behind the messaging permission changes.
Larry Page is pretty fearless when it comes to moving quickly. Case in point: When he assumed the CEO role in 2011, an incremental push to review Google’s UX and visual design became a unified sprint touching all major properties. I believe this extends to asking the question, “If we were starting this product today, would we design it in the same way?” If the answer is “no,” then one of two paths result: The product is updated, or a new one is built that’s more suited for the future. That’s what you’re seeing here, and it may just be the beginning of Google’s identity + comms unification.
Hunter Walk is a partner at seed-stage venture fund Homebrew. He says: “Although I spent 9+ years working at Google & YouTube, the speculation here is purely from personal opinion and additional insights from a company we funded at Homebrew, which is solving these sorts of communication challenges inside of business enterprises.” Reach him @hunterwalk and on his blog.