The worldwide web has developed in three distinct phases. Web 1.0 started in the ’90s with the advent of the browser, HTML, and this thing called websites. During this Web 1.0 phase, users could read text, see small pictures, and complete basic transactions, but beyond that, functionality was pretty limited. Then, in the early 2000s, new technologies came along that led to more powerful websites and a more robust web infrastructure. Broadband proliferated in several countries, online video took off, and it became easier for people not just to consume stuff from the web, but also publish stuff to it. In this Web 2.0 the web became more than a giant shopping mall and online encyclopedia; it was a place where people could do all sorts of things. Billions of people from around the world came online, and often one of the first things they did when they got there was search.
Before the summer of 2010, that’s where we at Google lived: happily in Web 2.0. Meanwhile, the social web was emerging. Whereas Web 1.0 let you read and buy things and Web 2.0 let you do things, the social web let you talk about and share things. We had been watching this trend build for a while as first Friendster and then Myspace were the hot new things, and we had considered partnerships with a couple of the leading companies in the social space, Twitter and Digg. But those partnership ideas didn’t get very far, and perhaps distracted us from a competitor we never expected. Suddenly, the social web wasn’t coming, it was here, and it was led by a new platform called Facebook.
Google wasn’t really even in the game. The success of Orkut, our first social effort, was mostly limited to the Brazilian and Indian markets. We had launched the aforementioned, much-ballyhooed new form of email called Wave, which was a brilliant piece of technology that thrilled its power users (of which there were few) and confused all other humans (lots). We had also launched Buzz, a product that Googlers loved in our internal “dogfood” trial, but that ultimately raised privacy concerns. By summer 2010, we had stopped working on Wave, and Buzz was also slowing down, making us 0 for 2 in the social web arena.
Vic Gundotra chose to be bothered by this. Vic led mobile; he was the guy helping make all of Google’s great services thrive on the small, mobile screens that were rapidly becoming a critical onramp to the Internet for hundreds of millions of people. Vic had seen the potential of smartphones early on, and had helped build the team that pushed Google to make “mobile first” a common mantra. Our missteps in social had nothing to do with Vic, except for the fact that he was a Google employee and shareholder and was concerned that we were missing a historic shift in the web. He decided to do something about it. He asked Bradley Horowitz to lunch.
Bradley was in charge of social, and as his lunch with Vic stretched into a meeting and then another meeting, the two of them started to devise a new plan to reinvent Google for the social web and bring a bunch of innovations to consumers. Social wasn’t part of Vic’s job description, and although we were Vic’s ostensible bosses (he reported to Urs Hölzle, who reported to Eric, and attended Jonathan’s staff meetings), we certainly didn’t tell him to develop a new social platform, or even to offer his ideas on the topic. Rather, he saw we had a problem, felt he could contribute to creating a solution, and decided to make it happen.
Soon, Vic and Bradley’s project, code-named “Emerald Sea,” gained momentum around the company, and about a year later it launched as the Google+ project, one of the most ambitious bets in the company’s history. Google+ is often positioned in the media as a competitive response to Facebook, but this isn’t quite right. It’s more accurate to say that Google+ is a response to the disruption of Web 2.0 and the emergence of the social web. It is the social fabric that weaves together Google’s various platforms, from AdWords to YouTube. And it started because one person saw that a major shift was under way, with the potential to disrupt our business, and decided to do something about it. Even though it wasn’t his job.