Gmail goes social in Facebook face-off

Gmail users are able to post Facebook-style status updates with Google's new 'Buzz' feature.
Gmail users are able to post Facebook-style status updates with Google's new 'Buzz' feature.

SAN FRANCISCO - Google has opened a new social hub in its email service, leaving little doubt that the internet search leader is girding for a face-off with Facebook.

The new Gmail channel, called Google Buzz, includes many of the features that have turned Facebook into the Web's top spot for fraternizing with friends and family.

It comes less than a week after Facebook made changes of its own. Among other things, Facebook now shows a list of friends available for chatting on the left side of the page, similar to where Gmail now displays its chat feature.

The Google Buzz features won't reach all of Gmail's estimated 176 million users worldwide for several more days. A link to the service will appear on the top left of the page, in a prominent position just under Gmail's inbox tab.

Like Facebook, Google Buzz will let Gmail users post updates about what they are doing or thinking and share those with the rest of the world or with only a select group of people.

Gmail users also will be able to track other people's updates and instantly comment on them for everyone else in the social circle to see.

And, just like Facebook, Google Buzz can serve as a showcase for video, photos and web links to interesting stories.

Google Buzz also shows similarities with Twitter, an online communications tool that broadcasts messages of up to 140 characters. A mobile phone application of Google Buzz is particularly Twitter-like: It allows people to see the public updates of other people in the same vicinity.

Some of Google Buzz's features mirror social tools already available in instant-messaging services and other Web-based email, including Yahoo's. Google Chat, which is incorporated into Gmail, already has limited ability to display status updates.

Google launched a social network called Orkut six years ago, just a few weeks before Facebook began in a Harvard dorm room, but Orkut has gained little traction outside of Brazil. Meanwhile, Facebook has emerged as a cultural phenomenon with more than 400 million users worldwide.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin seemed confident that Google Buzz will enjoy broader success.

"Every couple years something new and revolutionary emerges and thanks to the internet it can really emerge very quickly and affect many people in a short period of time," Brin said. "I certainly hope that trend will continue and I hope we will make our own contribution with this set of capabilities."

Without mentioning Facebook specifically, other Google executives predicted the new service will do a better job of sifting through the clutter of personal updates to pull up the ones most likely to pique each individual user's interest.

Although Google remains far more powerful, Facebook poses a threat because much of the personal information shared on the site remains boxed in a "walled garden" that can't be indexed by search engines.

And Facebook has become a more alluring marketing magnet as more people spend more time there. That status threatens to siphon revenue from Google, which makes virtually all of its money from advertising.

Facebook had little to say about Google Buzz. "Generally, we're supportive of technologies that help make the web more social and the world more open and are interested to see how Google Buzz progresses over time," the company said in a statement.

Facebook also declined Tuesday to comment on a report by the blog TechCrunch that Facebook is developing a new email service, which would encroach on Gmail and other web-based email services.

The rivalry between Facebook and Google has been heating up since Facebook sold a 1.6 per cent stake to Microsoft in 2007. Facebook stirred things up further by luring a Google advertising executive, Sheryl Sandberg, to become its chief operating officer.

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