by Kevin Kelleher, contributor
FORTUNE – In the web industry, imitation is much more than a sincere form of flattery. It's an admission of another's success, and an effort to catch up to the industry leader in hopes of surpassing them.
In social media, Facebook has been the leader everyone imitates for several years. Google (GOOG) tried a few times and came up short. But this month, that changed: Google+ is a formidable social media platform that matches Facebook in many ways and surpasses it in others, like realtime group video chat. Facebook quickly responded with its own video chat service, but couldn't match Google's. This back and forth is likely to continue for some time.
A decade ago, Google and Yahoo (YHOO) entered into a similarly intense competition over search. Google eventually won, of course, but anyone using search engines since then has also benefited because that competition advanced search technology very quickly. Web users may benefit from a Facebook-Google rivalry, but for a different reason: The best way for these companies to differentiate their social media offerings is by preserving personal privacy.
In other words, if things really heat up between Facebook and Google, privacy could become a real priority on social networks. Any technological innovation that one company produces can be copied quickly by the other.
Google and Facebook have been copying each other's innovations for some time. First Facebook transforms from a simple web site to a web "platform" embracing thousands of other sites, then Google begins plotting a social "layer" over its core services. First Google hints that a social network should be broken up into multiple networks, then Facebook introduces this very feature with "Groups." And now that Google+ features Hangouts' video chat, Facebook has Skype-driven chat.
This cycle of innovate-then-imitate means neither company can hold the technological edge for long. Where there is likely to be a bigger gap is in privacy. Both companies have had major privacy snafus. Google Buzz flopped after its privacy defaults garnered bad press, and other privacy issues have drawn regulators' scrutiny. Facebook has a long history of privacy concerns of its own.
Yet there are important differences in the two companies' approaches to privacy. Mark Zuckerberg seems to be betting people will grow more comfortable sharing personal data with people and, more importantly, advertisers. "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people," he said last year to some controversy. Facebook has unabashedly designed its site to entice people into sharing more openly. As a result, it's drawn much more ad revenue than, say, Twitter.
Google's privacy mishaps has left it with a relatively conservative approach. That's not to say it's a model of privacy protection. The company still wants users to share data for more personalized search results, but it's much easier to manage Google's privacy options than Facebook's. Reviews of Google+ mention its superior ability to manage personal data, better transparency on how that data is shared and the option to delete all your data. In fact, one of the more notable things about the launch of Google+ is that privacy was barely mentioned. There were a few bugs spotted and fixed, but nothing on the scale of the Buzz fiasco.
The question facing Google+ is whether the positive reception that beta users are having over the social service will cross over to a mainstream audience already familiar with Facebook. If better privacy is in fact a big factor for many people, then Google+ could easily become so popular enough that Facebook will be forced to improve its own privacy policies.
But if Zuckerberg is right that most people have simply grown cavalier about what they share about themselves online, then it may maintain its role at the center of the social media industry.
News Corp. will reportedly sell the early social media star at a fraction of what it paid in 2005. But the company's problems go back to its earliest days.Dan Mitchell, contributor - Jun 28, 2011 1:10 PM ET
Speakers at Brainstorm GREEN have been stopping by Fortune's virtual conference to take questions from online attendees:
Bill Weihl, Green Energy Czar, Google (GOOG)
What comments might [you] have about the "Bloom Box" replacing a National Grid?
Weihl: There's a role for both distributed generation and centralized power plants -- I expect we'll see both -- and the Bloom Box will play a part in distributed generation.
Last year Google bought a decommissioned papermill MOREApr 6, 2011 3:28 PM ET
The company learned they had to accurately account for saving money in order to understand how they profit from green investments. Once they did, the figures were staggering.
FORTUNE -- Making chemicals takes energy -- a lot of it -- so the mere fact that Dow Chemical (DOW) can save a lot of money by improving their energy efficiency is not what's surprising. It's just how much energy and cash they've MOREScott Woolley - Apr 5, 2011 11:25 AM ET
Green industries of the 21st century could spring from unlikely sources -- just ask software billionaire Tom Siebel.
FORTUNE -- Bright ideas about how to help the environment and in the process make a few bucks -- or perhaps even a few billion bucks -- abound. But which of them could actually work?
Might it be billionaire Tom Siebel's new venture, the mysteriously-named C3, which aims to use clever software to radically improve MOREScott Woolley - Apr 4, 2011 10:20 AM ET
The purchase will help Google with text to speech quality.
There aren't many details in Google's (GOOG) blog post on the matter but they picked up a small UK-based specch synthesis company called Phonetic Arts today:
But what about when the computer speaks to you—in other words, voice output? There are already places you can hear this in action today—for example, Google Translate "speaks" translated text in multiple languages, and you can listen to navigation instructions MORESeth Weintraub - Dec 3, 2010 3:56 PM ET
Better Place is working with GE to finance purchases of batteries for its switching stations and electric car system. But since most EVs come with the batteries built in, the financing won't be a panacea for the pricey new cars.
The electric vehicle industry's major hurdle these days is the exact same piece of hardware that's supposed to power it. Batteries for electric cars can cost up to $10,000 a piece. MOREShelley DuBois, writer-reporter - Nov 9, 2010 12:45 PM ET
How a founding editor of WIRED learned to live with technology like the Amish do
My favorite part of Kevin Kelly's new book "What Technology Wants" is the story he tells about how his first computer -- an Apple II -- changed his life.
You see, although Kelly is one of America's most influential tech writers -- he was the editor of the Whole Earth Review, one of the founders of the MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Nov 8, 2010 12:49 PM ET
The government 2.0 movement is about change, real change, and how to use the power of tech to empower the public. Here's how it will work, and who's already behind it.
By John Moore, contributor
There is a movement underway, called Government 2.0, a movement is crucial to our future as a society and one that's I'm a part of -- an inside man, if you will. Let me tell you about MOREOct 1, 2010 1:53 PM ET
Earlier today, IBM (IBM) announced it would purchase Netezza (NZ), a publicly-held Massachusetts-based data analytics company, for $1.7 billion.
For IBM, Netezza is the most recent of 23 acquisitions by the company over the last four years, amounting to $12 billion. (Last week, the company bought OpenPages, another company in Massachusetts that creates risk and compliance software for businesses.) Analytics technology enables companies to observe and analyze past business performance so they MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Sep 20, 2010 11:38 AM ET
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