I hate Xerox machines because you never know when they’re going to jam. When our Xerox machine jams, I’m stuck opening random doors and pulling levers, desperately trying to unjam it so that I can produce enough copies of an exam before class starts. Even if successful, I often end up with toner on my hands. Many others share the same frustrations. If you asked me how satisfied I am with our Xerox, I would say, “Not very.” But there’s no better way to produce scores of exams in an economical manner, so I keep using it.
Does this imply a huge market opportunity for Xerox competitors? Not really. In fact, our “Xerox” isn’t even made by Xerox, but rather one of its competitors. Paper jams are an unfortunate but common event in any high volume copier. It’s simply the nature of moving thousands of sheets of paper per day at high speeds through confined spaces.
Google’s argument for releasing Google+, its Facebook competitor, is that “people are barely tolerant of the Facebook they have.” I wholeheartedly agree, and count myself as one of those people. But when many of us say that we find “Facebook” annoying, we are not referring to Facebook specifically. We’re referring to social networking sites in general, of which Facebook is the ubiquitous example.
I personally find Facebook distasteful for several reasons. I dislike handing over my information, knowing it will be repackaged and sold to marketers in one form or another. I find many status updates to be of little relevance or interest. But I sign on nevertheless because it’s the most practical way to share my photos with a large group of people and stay up to date with them.
Of course, these factors will be true of Google+ or any other free social networking site run by a for-profit company. If Google+ supplants Facebook – any unlikely but possible scenario – then I will migrate there along with everyone else. If that happens, I will be at least as dissatisfied with Google+ as I am with Facebook (and possibly more so, as Google will collect even more information about me than Facebook does since they also see all my searches). I would be shocked if a wildly successful Google+ did not get satisfaction ratings similar to the IRS, just as the wildly successful Facebook does. It’s all but unavoidable given how closely it duplicates Facebook’s functionality.
From a strategic perspective, however, the difference between Facebook and Google is that Facebook’s only product is social networking. As long as Facebook retains overwhelming market share, it doesn’t matter whether users dislike them, because there is no practical alternative. Furthermore, the negative brand recognition does not spill over onto other Facebook products because, well, there are no other Facebook products. For Google, however, the negative brand recognition associated with a successful Google+ (i.e., one that kills off Facebook) would spill over onto its other products.
That leads me to one of two conclusions. One possibility is that Google executives truly believe that people will somehow find a scaled-up Google+ to be much more satisfying than the scaled-up Facebook. That seems like an implausible scenario, but it’s possible they’ve convinced themselves of it. These are, after all, the same people that wanted to pay $6 billion for Groupon. The second possibility is that they are perfectly aware of the risks to the brand, but the potential to monetize all that juicy personal information, especially when combined with their search data, is just too tasty to pass up. And they might well be right.
* Technically the first statement is untrue, as Xerox surely makes other products besides copiers.