Google announced today that its decade-old social network Orkut would be shut down. The long-suffering social network had withstood the fact that its user base was primarily in Brazil at a time when Google didn’t have the international presence it would later maintain, as well as the rise of many social networking competitors — including an internal rivalry with better-resourced products including Google+.
Google said the Brazilian-headquartered site would stop accepting registrations today, that it would close down September 30, and that public communities would be hosted as an online archive.
“It’s been a great 10 years, and we apologize to those still actively using the service. We hope people will find other online communities to spark more conversations and build even more connections for the next decade and beyond,” wrote engineering director Paulo Golgher.
Let’s stroll down memory lane for a moment and remember the circumstances of Orkut’s launch in 2004, after Google had tried to buy Friendster and two weeks before the first appearance of Facebook.
On January 23, 2004, The Register reported,
“Undetered by the feeding frenzy around the social networking bubble, and rebuffed by Friendster Inc, which it attempted to buy, Google has decided to build one better. Given Friendster’s well-documented problems with coping with a large number of users, and Google’s world class expertise in scalability, it ought to be more than up to the technical challange. But will it pay?”
The story was true — Orkut would launch the next day. But on the inside, the reality was completely different, wrote Doug Edwards in his book “I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59.” Never mind the “will it pay” question. Orkut was not up to the challenge, and actually launched on a single, non-Google server.
“Orkut buit his eponymous service entirely on his own. It was a prototype to gather data, to try things out, to experiment. He wrote the code, designed the user interface, set up the databases. He didn’t intend for it to be a full-fledged Google product, so to accelerate the development, he used tools that were commonly available outside Google. They came from Microsoft. The server running Orkut wasn’t even located in a Google data center, but at the home of the weather site Wunderground.com. Orkut knew his system would never support Google-sized audiences, but it should safely scale to handle two or three hundred thousand users. Membership in Orkut would be by invitation only, so he would be able to throttle growth by controlling the number of invitations the system distributed.
“Marissa [Mayer] was the consumer product manager. She saw Orkut as a small startup within Google, operating autonomously to prove that a single engineer with a new idea could build and test a product without enduring the delays of Google’s increasingly bureaucratic development process. Larry and Sergey encouraged her to manage Orkut as if it were an independent operation.
[...Long section about the argument over whether or not Google would acknowledge that Orkut was a Google product. Eventually, It did.]
“Despite its rough start, Orkut became a smash success — in Estonia, India and Brazil. (And in Finland for a brief time, because ‘orkut’ in Finnish means ‘multiple sexual climaxes.’ Once people realized the site was not for romantic hookups, traffic quickly fell off.) Especially Brazil, where, Orkut informed me, a third of all the country’s Internet traffic is still on the site that bears his name. When he visited Rio de Janeiro, he was recognized instantly and mobbed like a rock star. Brazilians bought computers for no reason other than to use the service he had built.
“In the United States, however, Orkut lagged. Two weeks after its launch, a student at Harvard introduced a social network for his classmates. He called it ‘The Facebook.’
“Because Orkut had been written using Microsoft tools, Google’s engineers deemed it ‘not scalable.’ [Quoting Paul Buchheit, the former Google employee who would launch his own project, Gmail, a few months later] ‘They turned their noses up at it and they didn’t make the thing work. They just let it die. And by the time they managed to rewrite it in a way that was acceptable to the engineers at Google, it was already dead everywhere except for Brazil. Who knows? If they had actually done what was necessary to make it go, it could have been successful.'”
Well, Orkut didn’t die then. But 10 years later, its last days are finally here.