I think it could, particularly in combination with Google Apps, the business version of the suite that includes Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs. I raised the possibility in a conversation with Vic Gundotra, senior VP of engineering for Google+, at Web 2.0 Summit, produced by Battelle's Federated Media and O'Reilly Media in partnership with UBM TechWeb, in San Francisco. He kind of smiled back, and I told him, "I see that twinkle in your eye!"
He neither confirmed nor denied the twinkle.
I'm not the only one thinking along these lines. Altimeter Group analyst Jeremiah Owyang predicted back in August that we would see a business version of Google+ "disrupting lightweight players like Chatter, Socialcast, Yammer, SocialText, and others." When he shared the idea on Google+, several of the people who commented on his post mentioned Google Apps integration as an opportunity for Google to move into enterprise social networking.
Gundotra told the Web 2.0 Summit crowd the integration was "imminent, within days."
[See InformationWeek's complete coverage of Web 2.0 Summit.]
Until now, Google Apps users have been locked out of participation in Google+ using an online identity associated with the Internet domain for their business or organization. As introduced over the past few months, Google+ only worked with the user profiles associated with standard consumer Gmail accounts.
As a Google Apps user, I've felt the pain of this separation, which I've dealt with by keeping Google+ open in Firefox, while keeping the Google Apps account I use for email and calendar open in Chrome. Besides getting rid of that awkwardness, Google Apps integration could have bigger implications for how Google+ is used for business purposes.
I'm getting into speculative territory here. The product that I imagine Google could deliver and what it actually delivers might be two different things. There's always the question of how much energy Google really wants to put into the enterprise business, represented by Google Apps and a few other products, as opposed to chasing consumers and ad dollars. I'm imagining what would happen if Google+ became a well-integrated part of the apps product family. Whether or not that happens (or happens now, rather than a year from now) is a separate question from merely making it possible for users to access Google+ with their Google Apps logins.
At a minimum, I think we will see administrative controls for Google Apps administrators, allowing them to specify whether Google+ should be turned on for their users. Google does something similar for products such as YouTube, which were not originally part of the Google Apps product family.
I will be watching whether they also enable configurations aimed at promoting social networking within the enterprise, in the mode of Yammer. I'm thinking of something like the way Google Docs works, where it's easy to share a document with anyone in your domain, but you can also invite in outside partners or customers where warranted. You can even make your documents public, but that's not the default.
Google apparently uses Google+ internally in a way like this, although we've recently seen how that can go wrong without adequate controls. Google engineer Steve Yegge unintentionally made himself famous by posting a long rant about how Google+ was a "pathetic afterthought" and giving his own extensive rundown on everything Google does wrong. Yegge apparently intended to share the post only with a private circle of Google employees but instead made it public.
Gundotra told the Web 2.0 crowd that despite some hurt feelings, Google ultimately embraced this as a way of giving the world a glimpse of the spirit of open debate and critique the company allows internally. Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who joined Gundotra onstage, settled for criticizing Yegge for being longwinded. "I stopped reading it after the first 1,000 pages or so," he said. "If you want to get a point across, limit it to a paragraph or so."
Still, most enterprises would prefer to spare themselves that kind of publicity. A Google+ for business would need something like the HootSuite Secure Profiles controls. HootSuite added that feature after a series of widely publicized snafus where people managing multiple Twitter accounts through the tool posted embarrassing personal messages to the feeds of big brands. It's essentially a glorified "Are you sure?" button--as in, "Are you sure you want to post that message about how wasted you got at the concert to the Better Homes & Gardens account?"
Similarly, a business version of Google+ might default to posting messages to a circle associated with your internal business domain, with an "Are you sure?" prompt for posting public messages. I'd also want to see a way of changing that setting for people who send out public messages more routinely and know how to handle that responsibility.
Gundotra said in the coming months we will see Google+ integrated with all the other products in the Google family, and that's when we will really see the product come into its own. "We deliberately chose the smallest possible modifier for 'Google'--it's just the plus," he said.
Google+ alone is just a mechanism for posting and sharing messages. Some of the other enterprise social networks started out like that, but over time they've needed to add features like calendaring and Web-based document sharing and support for videos. Google has a lot of those other elements needed to create a fully fleshed enterprise social network, should it decide it wants to do so.
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