What Apple Could Learn From Google+

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Look around in Google’s new social network, Google+. You’ll see Apple design DNA everywhere. The clean, white space. The knowing and careful attention to typography type, shade and spacing. The icons are beautiful in a simple, balanced, Apple kind of way.

The coolest feature on the whole site, the “circle editor,” was in fact designed primarily by the same guy who was a lead designer on the original Macintosh.

Google+ presents itself as a social network that competes with Facebook. But once you use it, you realize that it’s an uber-communication device that can replace all forms of online communication, from blogging and micro-blogging to chatting, texting and e-mail. Talk about thinking different.

Google also took a page from the Apple playbook about entering late into a market that’s mature, but seriously flawed, and succeeding in that market by fixing what’s broken on the products of competitors. Think cell phones. When Apple announced its entry into the handset market in 2007, I thought it was too late for them to catch up to the dominant players, including Nokia, Palm, RIM and others. Apple caught up with and clobbered these former leaders by identifying what was seriously flawed with their products and making a product without those flaws. And this is exactly what Google is doing with Google+.

It’s clear that after many fits and starts, Google has finally built an awesome social network, in part by learning from Apple.

But what can Apple learn from Google+?

Design ideas — any ideas, really — function like plant biology (this is the concept behind the “meme.”) The adaptive, successful ideas survive and reproduce and come to dominate. As part of their survival mechanism, other varieties somehow gain access to the successful DNA, and incorporate it. For example, when scientists develop some kind of weed-resistant, pest-resistant variety of genetically modified corn, DNA from the GMO strain always shows up in non-GMO corn in nearby fields.

This is what’s happening in the consumer-facing technology industry. Apple has succeeded so blatantly with its approach to design, that many companies can survive only if they incorporate some of that design DNA into their own products. Android tablets, for example, will succeed only to the extent that they can approach the iPad in look, feel, performance, usability and so on, while maybe adding a few things the iPad doesn’t have (USB support, ruggedized casings or whatever).

As in biology, where no two species can occupy the same “ecological niche,” the same physical space while consuming the same resources in the same way, other products can’t survive by copying Apple. They have to borrow from Apple, then add something Apple doesn’t have that’s compelling to a lot of users.

Apple is the most borrowed-from company in technology right now. But Apple should — and does – borrow back from others.

Google+ is the biggest culture-changing product to emerge from Google since Google Search itself. And Apple can learn from it.

Here’s what Apple can learn from Google+:

* You can go big with social networking and still succeed. Apple’s pathetic attempt at social networking, Ping, was an incredibly “small” idea for a great company like Apple. Social networking is the Big Thing online for users, yes, but especially for the future of advertising and business. The Googles and the Facebooks of the world could pull away from all other advertising players in the future because they have a lot more contextual data on users and because they get a lot more user eyeball time. To focus their social networking initiative around a single interest was a mistake. Apple should have launched a social initiative that encompassed all interests. It still can. Google+ showed the way.

* You can be “open” without losing control. Selective openness can be the key to success in social services. If you look at Facebook, that social network is open to all kinds of third party apps, most of which degrade the experience of using Facebook. And Facebook is closed, for the most part, to features that enable users to deliver their posts to users outside the realm of Facebook membership, a fact which also degrades the experience of using Facebook. Google+ as it is today, at least, flips this. I’m following nearly 5,000 people on Google+, and have yet to receive an app-generated spammy piece of nonsense. Yet I can share my posts with my mother, who’s never even heard of Google+.

* You don’t have to censor in order to have a tasteful product. Apple forces users to get apps only through the app store, then censors apps based on the company’s own values. By the way, Facebook does the same thing: Sexist cheesecake photos of women are OK on Facebook, but non-explicit photos of mothers nursing their babies are censored. Facebook’s frat-boy values dictate what’s allowed. Google+ has a better approach: Just give people the tools to censor their own incoming content as they wish. Google has tools un-follow, block and report users who post objectionable content. It’s clear from a bit of crowd-sourcing I did in preparation for this post that Google+ users feel respected by Google while on Google+, but many feel disrespected by Apple when they use Apple services like iTunes and the App store.

* You don’t have to coerce users all the time (forcing them to use iTunes to activate an iPad, forcing them to enter a password to download a free app, forcing them to enter a credit card before they can become users, forcing them to use only the carriers you have chosen for them, and so on.) You can be like Google+ and just be easygoing and inviting.

Any Google+ users out there? If so, what do YOU think Apple could learn from Google+? (And you can find my on Google+ here.)