Could Google+ Depend of Google Now’s Success?

MG Siegler recently argued that:

Google+ is a turd.

I’m not sure why everyone seems afraid to admit this. I think it’s similar to the reason why some seem reluctant to call Windows 8 a turd when it’s already abundantly clear: people are scared that such a bold statement could come back to bite them in the ass. But it won’t. Both are clearly turds.

Google continues to try to cram Google+ down people’s throats, but it just won’t stay down. People are gonna keep puking it right back up. The only compelling feature of Google+ is Hangouts; everything else is a carbon copy of some social activity that people can (and already do) do elsewhere. Google simply made a bad call and started chasing the wrong thing (social) far too late.

I wonder how long it will take Google to admit defeat here? I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of the shoving of Google+ in our faces first — Chrome, you’re next. But I really wish Google would take all the energy being put behind this dog and use it to blow out their truly interesting and innovative products, like Google Now.

I think that the of Google+ could depend on Google’s capability of linking signals from their social networking product with their Now product. Currently, Now can ascertain things like when you’re near certain locations or about to perform certain actions (e.g. near a bus stop/station or about to take a flight) and provide relevant and helpful data to the Android Phone user. This is really cool and, if you’re comfortable with this degree of personalized data mining, potentially convenient.

What Now presently lacks is the ability to tell me that when I’ve a break in my day (based on Google Calendar analysis) and a friend also has a break (based on an analysis of their calendar) that we could mutually meet for coffee or meal. It similarly lacks an awareness of my colleagues and friends to suggest that there are special non-birthday dates coming up. Same thing for mass-mining of check-ins (to figure out what my social community eats, and where they do it often) and preferred news and website content.

The thing is, all of these functionality elements could be implemented if there was widescale adoption and use of Google+. This means that updated version of Android need to get to millions of handsets or, alternately, Chrome need to deploy Now functionality (something that code analyses suggest is imminent). Either/or could encourage people to adopt Google+ to get heightened personalized data mining. Yes, you read that right: (perceived) helpful surveillance could get people to intentionally adopt products that facilitate useful personalized insights.

The key issue – beyond pure legal and regulatory concerns – will be whether this kind of mining is seen as ‘creepy’ or not. If the Now product is seen as cool, feature rich, opt-in, and not privacy infringing – and is adopted by a significant portion of the masses – then Google could offer personalized services in excess of those offered by Twitter and Facebook today. This might be the ‘nudge’ necessary to get a significant portion of the social graph onto Google and consequently elicit a network effect sufficient to turn Google+ into a viable and useful social networking community.

If Google+ is seen as a gateway to improved Now information, and if users see Now as a feature they want more of in their life, then Google+ could see a fresh (if somewhat forced) breath of life. A key question, however, is whether the advantages of a cool product offering are sufficient to get people to ‘jump ship’ onto a largely empty social networking platform. It’ll be curious to watch because if Google is successful they’ll have found a way to create a social graph in a novel manner, one that other companies may subsequently attempt to replicate.

Google’s ‘Friendly Tracking’: Fitfully Creepy?

Kashmir Hill wrote an article last week about how Google Now is informing some Nexus owners of how active they have been over the past week. She rightfully notes that this is really just making transparent the tracking that smartphones do all the time, though putting it to (arguably) good and helpful use. This said, Google’s actions raise a series of interesting issues and questions.

To begin, Google’s actions are putting a ‘friendly face’ on locational tracking. Their presentation of this data also reveals some of the ways that Google can – and apparently is – using locational data: for calculating not just distance but, based on the rate of movement between locations, the means by which users are getting from point A to B. This isn’t surprising,given that Google has had to develop algorithms to determine if subscribers’ phones are moving in cars (in fast or slow traffic) for some of their traffic alerts systems. Determining whether you’re walking/biking instead of driving is presumably just a happy outcome of that algorithmic determination. That said: is this mode of analyzing movement and location necessarily something that users want Google to be processing? Can they have been genuinely expected to consent to this surveillance – barring in jargon-ridden Terms of Service and Privacy Policies – and, moreover, can Now users get both raw data and the categories into which their locational data has been ‘sorted’ by Google? Can they have both sets of data fully, and permanently, expunged from Google databases?

Friendliness – or not, if you see this mode of tracking and notification as problematic – aside, I think that Google’s alerts speak to the important role that ambient technology can play in encouraging public fitness. In the interests of disclosure, I’ve used a non-GPS-based system to track the relative levels of my activity for the past six or seven months. It’s been the single best $100 that I’ve spent in the past five years and led to very important, and positive, changes in my personal health. I specifically chose a non-GPS system because I worry about the implications of linking health/fitness information with where individuals physically move: I see such data as a potential gold mine for health insurers and employers. This is where I see the primary (from my perspective) concerns: how can individuals be assured that GPS-related fitness information won’t be made available to health insurers who are setting Android users’ health premiums? How can they prevent the information from leaking to employers, or anyone else that might have an interest in this data?

Past this issue of data flow control I actually think that making basic fitness information very, very clear to people is a good idea. A comfortable one? No, not necessarily. No one really wants to see how little they may have been active. But I’m not certain that this mode of fitness analysis is necessarily creepy; it can definitely be unpleasant, however.

Of course individuals need to be able to opt-out of this kind of tracking if they’d like. Really, it should be opt-in (from a privacy perspective) though from a public health perspective I can’t help but wonder if it shouldn’t be opt-out. This is an area where there are competing public goods, and unlike a debate around security and privacy (which tends to feature pretty drawn out, well entrenched, battle lines) I’m not sure we’ve had a good discussion about the nature of locational tracking as it relates to basic facets of public fitness and, by extension, public health.

In the end, this is actually a tracking technology that I’m largely on the fence about, and my core reason for having problems with it are (a) I don’t think people had any real idea that they had opted-in to the fitness analysis; (b) I don’t trust third-parties not to get access to this data for purposes at odds with the data subject’s own interests. If both (a) and (b) could be resolved, however, I think I’d have a much harder time disagreeing with such ‘fitness alerts’ being integrated with smartphones given the significant problems of obesity amongst Western citizens.

What are your thoughts on this topic?