Google's Spaces Launch: Simplify Small-Group Sharing

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In its latest attempt to become more relevant as a social networking provider, Google launches Spaces, an app for sharing among small groups.

Google on Monday introduced Spaces, an app for sharing online content among a small group of people. Available on Android, iOS, desktop, and mobile web for those with Gmail accounts, Spaces represents another in a long line of attempts by the company to become more relevant as a social networking provider.

"With Spaces, it's simple to find and share articles, videos, and images without leaving the app, since Google Search, YouTube, and Chrome come built in," said Luke Wroblewski, product director, in a blog post.

Google became popular by sending Internet users elsewhere for content via search links. Lately, it has become more concerned with keeping people from leaving.

Facebook mastered the art of promoting sharing among a captive audience, but even Facebook has struggled to make sharing and messaging work well on mobile devices. One result of its efforts, Rooms, was shut down last year. Its Messenger app, however, shows the way social interaction on mobile devices is headed.

Spaces may aspire to simplicity, but it's not simple to create a communications app that fosters social engagement and benefits from network effects. Google tried something similar with Google Buzz in 2010, only to discontinue the product a year later. Then there was Google+, the company's half-hearted effort to counter Facebook. Google+ Communities emerged in 2012 as an alternative to Facebook Groups. There's also Google+ Collections.

However, few of Google's social products have become the sort of billion-user businesses that the company celebrates on its earnings calls -- Android, Chrome, Gmail, Maps, Search, Youtube, and the Google Play Store.

This may explain why Google has chosen to hitch Spaces to Gmail, among its most successful social products. Its other social communications products include Google+, Hangouts, Messenger (not to be confused with Facebook's identically named app), Photos, and YouTube.

Spaces allows users to create a private chat area with a single tap, invite friends easily using text messaging, email, or a social network, and search content saved in Spaces with the help of Google's original competency, text-based search. It's something of a cross between Google+ Communities and Google+ Collections, without Google+.

[See Google's Next HQ: Modern, With Retro Flairs.]

To help Spaces stand out among the multitude of chat, messaging, sharing, and communications apps, Google intends to create several Spaces for the sessions at Google I/O this week. And Wroblewski has hinted at "a few surprises." Given that Google I/O is a developer conference, that could mean APIs for Spaces, which would make the app more compelling to developers and more competitive with Facebook Messenger.

Yet Google is its own worst enemy here. Its history of launching products and abandoning them clearly informs the skepticism evident in many of the comments about Spaces that have been posted to Google's blog post, to Wroblewski's Google+ post, and to Hacker News.

Spaces may be simple, but trust is hard.

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