21.2.10

Buzzes, location and privacy

Google launched Buzz more than a week ago. Having had that time to actually use it, before I start excoriating it, I have to admit major disappointment, bar a few really cool surprises.

Buzz is an obvious knockoff of Friendfeed - with a slight twist. The general idea is, of course, the aggregation of inputs from different sites - famously, twitter and Google Reader - into a unified stream. FriendFeed does the same thing, but the twist is Gmail Integration. Waves notwithstanding, email still remains the most popular way of communicating with others. And of course a ready made user base for pushing your latest offering is a temptaion no one can resist - even the always-do-gooders.

The primary problem - described as an EPIC fail - was the fact that sharing was turned on automagically with some of your contacts, giving rise to problems like the 'ex who can now stalk me by looking at my already public feeds and known friends' and the 'business partners who must have no insight into my personal life and no idea that I work for the competition as well' problems. Eric Schmidt, ceo @ google, had famously said about using Google products, 'Don't do stuff you want to keep private' and thats seems to have permeated the very essence of Buzz. I am not convinced this loss of privacy amounts to much. Let me clarify - The idea of exposing email addresses of people commenting was probably not the best, it opens up spam traps and what not. And I still think that for a lot of people having no control or having control hidden behind 3+ mouse clicks (where Buzz put its controls) is not very convenient. I see that as a failure of the design, not of the general intent though.

That said, I am not sure I would be too much concerned about this. Social media is a different ball game - you want your profile publicized as much as possible. True, google didn't get it correct, but here's the problem - start with a clean slate like Google Wave did and you have no idea what to do. By giving you the option - first by auto-add and then later, by auto-suggest - on whom to add from your known contacts is definitely a great way to start networking. I personally do not care about losing that privacy and staying within the confines of some sort of closed garden. I cannot justify this anymore or less - privacy is a deeply private issue and everyone has differing interpretaitons of how "private" privacy on the internet really is or should be.

In any case, thats not what gets me excited about Buzz. One of the main draws is the pubsubhubbub implementation backing Buzz. I had speculated sometime back on what the killer app to the Google backed protocol would be and was a little disappointed that there wasn't any more than RSS publishing to it. And bang - Google comes up with Activity streams and inbuilt support for multiple blogging engines. Any time you publish a post, you can almost immediately see it in your Buzz listings. Thats fantastic! Wave is a synchronous collaboration platform, but Buzz is its async sibling, without the bells and whistles of course. It's "almost" real time which for most of us works for the bigger part of our online interactions. Google released some apis for using Buzz, but its more like a pubsubhubbub how-to guide for Buzz streams. What I am waiting for is the part they haven't released yet - read/write support for your own streams with authentication and the salmon protocol and of course with pubsubhubbub. This is the beginning of the push-button web and the closest most of us ever get to real-time updates in our lifetimes.

The killer though can be explained in 3 words - location, location and location. I have an Android 1.6 based phone and Buzz was only available through the Google Maps for Mobile 4.0 release. Thats how I started off and boy,oh,boy is location integration with Google Services awesome! I am in Philadelphia and I buzz about visiting the Liberty Bell - et voila, someone gives me a virtual guide to the bell. I am out at work and am able to view buzzes on people offering instant information on doctors, restaurants, gas stations - anything you want to know about in your neighborhood. And once that is offered, you can search for it, read comments on it, reviews about it - anything the internet can offer you about this place. The best part is all of this information can be (at some point of time, I hope) attached to a public buzz based on keywords and be made available anytime. The flip side is of course, search engine ads (its not just Google, every search engine does it. Ads are their bread and butter.) and not having seen how bad ads can get on the phone, lets wait and see. But location is the killer Buzz feature - if you don't have location enabled you are missing out on something really big.

The elephant in the room is Facebook, of course. They have come out with a supposedly "titanic"email solution which everyone talks about, their rear-prodding XMPP-based IM solution which nobody uses and their growing interest in location and mobile technology.

Yes, I know it is useless to be updated on people's locations, with their corny status updates and useless tips. That is the failing of almost all things social now. The best you can do is put a status update about you using the restroom and finding no toilet paper. But, consider todays web applications - anytime you want to find out  the next assignment your professor has put up, you have to go to a website, click on the links and possibly click through to the next assignment. With these "almost" real time solutions, you have it on a phone based or a desktop client. Now replace 'assignments' with weather, sports, travel information and add location in the mix and what an exciting future that is for us consumers. The social ecosystem that Buzz is building can lead to more and I hope, better web applications.

Buzz is just a short step into this future. The design is awful, which convinces me it is not going to be the final vehicle or even the most popular one. But the magnitude of Gmail users - an automatic recruit base for Buzz makes me confident Buzz will lead the way.