Google could suffer from showing rivals its cards too early, but avoiding a privacy blunder is worth the competitive risk.
After major privacy failures in its Buzz and Street View services, Google has hit the right notes with its deliberate, measured roll out of its new Google+ social networking site, according to privacy experts.
By making Google+ available to a very limited set of initial testers, Google is showing that it learned its lesson from the privacy fiasco that followed the sudden, widespread launch of its Twitter-like Buzz service, which earned the company boos and lawsuits from end users, and investigations and fines from government agencies for unilaterally and publicly disclosing previously hidden Gmail connections.
The conservative approach to Google+'s availability is allowing Google to gather valuable feedback and patch bugs, including privacy holes, before making the site available to a mass audience, when glitches would have exponential consequences, experts said in e-mail interviews.
It is a welcome sign from a company that has also caught heat from privacy advocates and government watchdogs due to its now ended but years-long, unintended capture of e-mails, passwords and Web traffic from unprotected WiFi networks by the cars that take its Street View maps photos.
"I think it is very smart of Google to restrict Plus to a 'limited field trial' -- they aren't even calling it a beta. Google made a misstep with the roll out of Buzz. They've already avoided that mistake with Plus with this limited release. And because it's so exclusive, tech savvy individuals are fighting to get in -- just the type of folks that you want as beta testers," said Sean Sullivan, an F-Secure security adviser.
"Clearly there are some bugs to be fixed. I think Google will do so quickly," he added.
John Simpson, a consumer advocate at Consumer Watchdog, echoed the opinion. "It's difficult to analyze Google+'s features because I do not have access to the project [but] if they are sincerely attempting to solve issues before opening it up to the general public, that's a good thing. Perhaps Google executives have learned something from their past blunders," he said.
Peter Eckersley, a senior staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. said Google has shown that it understands the value of being "loud and clear" about stamping out privacy bugs in its user interfaces with a limited launch period. "We'll have to see what Plus looks like in a few months time in order to give it a fully critical privacy review," Eckersley said.
In the meantime, it's important for people to understand that, even if Google+ delivers on all of its privacy-protection features, there are areas that aren't covered by it or by any other social networking service, he said.
"Google Plus is clearly designed to give people better control over their privacy with respect to their family, co-workers and friends, [but] there are other types of privacy that it simply can't provide. If you want a communications tool where the information you're sharing can't be read by Google, or by governments or lawyers in western countries, Google Plus isn't the service to use. Nobody has succeeded in building a social network that can offer those kinds of privacy protections yet," he said.
By showing its cards early with a limited release, Google risks tipping off competitors, primarily Facebook, to the features that it hopes will give Google+ a competitive edge. In fact, already Facebook has responded to Google+'s multi-person video chat feature with a similar -- albeit more limited -- capability to offer one-on-one video chat through a partnership with Skype.
Still, the value of avoiding a Buzz-like privacy fiasco is well worth the risk of letting Facebook and others respond to Google+ before it's widely available, according to Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff.
"Facebook is indeed in a position to replicate the best of what it sees out there. You see this happening all the time -- LinkedIn copies Facebook, Facebook copies Twitter, Google copies Facebook, ad infinitum," Bernoff said. "But Facebook is what it is, and that's horrendously complicated [in its privacy controls]. It's not easy to fix that by copying something Google invented that's simple."
Google deserves credit for assuming that competitive risk and also for resisting the calls to open up the service widely more quickly, Bernoff said. "This strategy is better than flinging it out to everyone when it's not fully cooked. In fact, I think they have it about right, but the pressure to make this completely open will be very significant given the attention it's getting," he said.
The main thing Google is going for that Facebook doesn't have is an easy way to connect with distinct social circles, as opposed to sharing everything with everyone on one's friends list, he said. Facebook has a friend-segmentation feature, but it's not easy to configure, he said. "Facebook could fix this and likely will. But another round of interface confusion at Facebook isn't going to solve the problem. Google has the advantage of a clean slate," Bernoff said.
Ultimately, the key issue may not come down so much to pure privacy features but to whether Google+ lets users share online in a more natural, intuitive manner, like they do in real life, than is possible with Facebook today, F-Secure's Sullivan said. Whether it succeeds and beats Facebook in that respect remains to be seen, he said.
"Whether or not people will want Google+ once it's ready ... is another story. I, for one, am not yet convinced that it is a more 'natural' way to share," Sullivan said, echoing the opinion of other industry observers who say mainstream users may find Google+'s content-sharing mechanism too complicated to fully grasp.
For now, Google is proceeding in the right way as it fine-tunes Google+, a project of tremendous importance and significance for a company that has struggled with social media and expects to make up for lost ground with Google+, experts said.