Messaging standards are great! Maybe that’s why we have so many of them.
Don’t look now, but people communicate via the Internet. Whichever company can get the majority of users on their system wins. To quote Newman, the Seinfeld mailman: “When you control the mail, you control… information!”
The reason is that communication is where most of the online eyeballs are. And the network effect factor is overwhelming. (Network effect is: more users make a network more valuable to users, and users want to use networks that are more valuable.)
The carriers want everybody texting. It costs next to nothing to deliver text messages, but carriers can charge a lot and, for some reason, people pay. It’s free money, as far as the carriers are concerned.
Thousands of app makers want you to give up SMS and embrace some app-based communications system. Some work like texting. Others like an intercom system. Many of them are really great, but they’ve got an uphill battle getting everyone to embrace them.
Apple wants to get all OS X and iOS users messaging via iMessage.
Facebook wants to leverage Google’s Android to get everyone embracing Facebook Home.
And Google’s hatching a killer service based on Google+ called Babel. Allegedly.
The Power of Babel
Very credible rumors, leaks and reports suggest that Google plans to release a unified threaded-messaging service called Babel.
Initially bringing together Google Talk, Hangouts and Google+ Messenger into a single app, Babel is expected to be instantly accessible from Android, Chrome, Gmail, and also via what is reportedly a killer iOS app — and all these platforms will be synched.
Interestingly, Babel is rumored to be a collaboration between the Android, Chrome (now one team), Google+ and apps teams.
Babel is expected to do it all — live, multi-user hangouts, picture sending, SMS like texting and also an extended “emoji” context system that enables you to communicate your emotional state and current activity via more than 800 tiny icons, if allegedly leaked screenshots are any indication.
If Babel is great, it will join a long list of great messaging services. Let’s face it: Texting, many apps, Apple iMessage and Facebook Home are all great, too.
But the only real contenders for the Big Prize — getting the majority of users to embrace them as a standard — are Facebook and Google.
The reason is that texting will ultimately lose out because it tends to cost extra and it doesn’t do enough. And texting from non-phone device is still confusing to most users.
Apps will never gain the traction they would need to become standard as long as the Silicon Valley giants are in the game.
Apple iMessage doesn’t have a prayer because it’s for Apple products only — a minority of users.
Both Facebook’s Home and non-Home messaging and Google’s rumored Babel have the advantage of being on all mobile platforms and also all non-mobile platforms. And assuming Babel is everything it’s rumored to be, both are really compelling apps that will be popular with users.
Facebook has the advantage that everybody is on Facebook.
Google has the advantage that everybody is either on Google+, using Gmail, using Chat, using Google Voice or, barring that, using Google Search or YouTube — excellent advertising and promotional vehicles for Babel.
Ultimately, I think Babel could beat Facebook for the future of unified messaging. First, Google can be on more installations of Android than Facebook Home. While Google Babel is likely to be on just about every device that Home is on, the reverse is unlikely to be true. For example, I suspect the majority of Nexus and Motorola devices won’t have Facebook Home running on them.
Overall, Google has far more users when you total users of Google+, YouTube, Search, Gmail, Chat, Voice and potentially Google TV and Android@Home, if Google ever lights a fire under those initiatives.
However, in order for Google to really beat Facebook with a more popular unified message service, it has to replicate Home’s killer feature, which is the persistence of chat conversations on top of other apps. More than that, Google needs to bring this feature to all devices, so that the Google equivalent of Facebook’s Chat Heads pop up on the desktop, on Chrome, on Chromebooks and on Android devices. (Good luck with iOS.)
But here’s the thing most commenters haven’t considered: Even if Google fails to get as many users for Babel as Facebook gets for its messaging, Google still wins.
The reason is that Babel is yet another way to get people using Google+.
Right now, Google has half the users Facebook has (an impressive feat in itself for being open for less than two years). I would guess that Facebook pretty much has better than 90 percent of users who are interested in doing social networking (and they grow by more people becoming interested, not by converting users from other networks).
So if a Google+ user starts using Facebook Home, that user has probably already has a Facebook account and, although Facebook gets more time from that user, they haven’t gained a new user.
But the reverse is not true. If a Facebook user uses Babel (and thereby Google+), it’s much more likely that Google+ will actually gain a new user. Once they’re sucked into using Hangouts and other features of Google+ via Babel, they’re already on the road to using Google+ proper.
Meanwhile, Google will continue to integrate Google+ into all its cloud services.
When the dust settles on the messaging wars, I suspect Facebook and Google will end up with a comparable number of users. And when that happens, Google wins.
Why? Because, first of all, Google+ is superior in design, architecture, security, privacy and feature set. The only reason people use Facebook is: Everyone is on it. Once everyone is also on Google+, there’s no reason to use Facebook.
Second, Google+ will be integrated into a dozen other Google services people can’t live without. Whereas Facebook will be entirely dispensable.
And that’s why Facebook invented Facebook Home: to prevent a devastating MySpace-style mass exodus.
But I suspect they’ll fail in the long run.