Google brings Buzz social networking to Gmail, mobile

You’ve got to hand it to Google Inc.: when they take on a project, they don’t do things by halves. On Tuesday, in an event at the company’s Mountain View, Calif. campus the company announced Google Buzz, its newest entry into the social-networking arena.

In his introduction at Google’s press event, Vice President of Product Management Bradley Horowitz laid out the problem of social networking, which he likened to Google’s initial entry into the field of search: helping users find what’s relevant, isolating the signal from the noise.

Buzz attempts to solve that problem in a number of ways. For one thing, because it’s integrated into Google’s Gmail, the system automatically populates the list of users you’re following by pulling from the contacts that you converse with the most.

Using Buzz, you can share pictures, videos, and links, pulling in media from other sites like YouTube, Picasa, Flickr, Google Reader, and even Twitter. Google put an emphasis on sharing media, with features like inline video playback and a custom photo viewer that lets you quickly skim through shared photos. Buzz can even automatically pull headlines and photos from links that you post.

On the social side, Buzz users can post comments on each others posts–comments on your posts, or comments on your comments are delivered automatically to your Gmail Inbox. In addition, to make sure that you’re not missing out on quality content from people that you’re not directly following, Buzz will show you comments that have been recommended by people you follow. If you’re not interested in such a comment, you can mark it as such, and the Buzz recommendation system will learn and refine itself over time. Items you don’t care about will be collapsed at the bottom of your feed, so that you can still read them if you want.

One compelling feature that Buzz offers over some competing social networking services, such as Twitter, is the ability to control to whom an update is sent. For example, you can send posts to specific groups of contacts, either using Gmail’s included contact groups such as Friends or Family, or define a custom group, such as co-workers or college friends.

Buzz also has a major mobile component for Google, as the company announced it would be integrated into the mobile version of Google’s home page and into the Google Mobile Maps application for Nokia, Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Android phones. In addition, a Buzz Web application is available for both the iPhone and Android platforms.

The key ingredient to introducing relevancy from a mobile setting, according to Google Vice President of Engineering Vic Gundotra, was location data. Google has created a system that translates GPS information and other data such as time of day into recognizable place names, helping Buzz realize if you’re at work, at home, or elsewhere. Using the Buzz app, you can view the updates of those near you–you can also use the Mobile Maps application to see buzzes at particular locations: comments on a restaurant, for example.

During Tuesday’s event, Google also said that it would be rolling out a version of Buzz for corporate users, though it would not be included immediately. Executives also talked about a number of future plans for Buzz, such as integration with its Wave and Latitude services, emphasizing that it was still in development and would be informed by how people actually used it.

Given the popularity of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, it was only a matter of time before Google was compelled to enter the market–especially as the huge volume of social information on the Web is kind of like an untapped oil field for Google’s key revenue model of search-based advertising. This isn’t Google’s first foray into the market, however; the company launched a service named Orkut in 2004 which saw only slow adoption in North American and Europe, despite immense popularity Brazil and India. In 2007, the company bought microblogging service (and Twitter competitor) Jaiku, but in 2009 discontinued official support for it, turning it over to open-source volunteers.

The key to Buzz’s success, naturally, will hinge upon whether enough users adopt the system to hit the tipping point. Many users are entrenched in their current social networks of choice, and are likely resistant to joining yet another service. However, the integration with Gmail does work in Google’s favor, as its e-mail service is immensely popular, especially among those who already use social networking services. As with many of Google’s undertakings, its unwise to count the company out, even if the odds seem stacked against it.

Buzz is expected to roll out gradually to all users of Gmail beginning on Tuesday.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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