Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

What Google Hasn’t Done: Explained Why We as Users Would Want a Unified Online Identity

After years of providing us with many very good products — search, Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube, Chrome — Google is now on a mission to turn itself into one big product that understands each of us as one unified person.

In a forceful Gizmodo essay called “The Case Against Google,” Mat Honan argues that Google has become evil, because the company’s leadership now realizes that, in a world divided into apps and social networks, playing on the open Web won’t cut it anymore.

Google is in the process of tying all its products together so our usage of each one can inform the others, but it hasn’t really told users what’s going on and what it means. And as its set of products becomes more interwoven, Google is cross-promoting them ahead of the competition.

As Honan accurately describes the situation, in order to answer complex and subjective queries, Google needs to know a lot about the person asking the question. And that requires entrusting Google with lots of our private data and control.

But I want to live in a world where I can use the best tools and they work together. I don’t necessarily need Google to be the one to connect everything, but I’m not opposed to Google making it happen with some combination of its own products and other people’s.

Here’s a scenario that sticks in my mind. I want my phone to buzz me to say, “Hey, you should really leave now, because with the extra traffic today, your next meeting is 35 minutes away.”

And then the phone should tell me what I need to know about who I’m meeting with, and show me our recent correspondence and his or her latest tweets, and what friends and interests and experiences we have in common. It should tell me exactly where the meeting is and what’s a good place to park, and then it should start speaking turn-by-turn directions. If traffic gets worse, it should help compose a text to the person’s cell number that says I’ll be a few minutes late, and help me send it without distracting me from driving.

If you think about it, the who, what, where and when of a meeting are often split into four different apps: Our contacts, email, maps and calendar. That’s redundant, annoying and totally ridiculous on a phone, where I need to glance down and see what I need to know, now, before I walk into a pole.

I really like a lot of Google products. I don’t imagine I’ll ever voluntarily leave Gmail. Google Voice and its voicemail transcriptions make my life so much easier. As a voracious news consumer, I live in Google Reader. The Chrome browser is excellent. I’m generally quite happy when these products work together; for instance, when Gmail recognizes an event invitation in an email and helps put it on my calendar.

But when I’m looking for local stuff, I generally prefer Yelp and Foursquare to Google’s local products. If I want the latest news and commentary, I need my Twitter. Facebook is where the people are, and the good stuff is on Path and Instagram. I chat on Skype and AIM all the time. We run AllThingsD’s editorial team on WordPress and Socialcast. On my phone, I’ve recently gotten lots of value out of Highlight (dossiers on who’s nearby), Orchestra (to-dos), and Quora and Pinterest (for high-quality text and photos).

In many cases, Google has a competing product. I don’t want to be forced to use Google’s product, and I don’t want my favorite apps to have to live as subjects on a Google-owned platform (or, for that matter, a Facebook-owned platform). What I’d like is for these services to work together and share data respectfully.

If Google wants to push its unification agenda, it should do a better job of explaining why that’s a good thing for me. We billion users, many of whom have been on Google for five years or more, should be given a fair chance to decide whether we want to opt in.

But again, I don’t think unification is a bad thing, if it can be done right. In app form, the closest thing I’ve used to have my online identity unified for my own sake is Greplin. Being a fairly trusting person, I’ve given this start-up access to search across my personal data on my multiple Google email accounts, calendars and docs, plus my Dropbox, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Each time I open Greplin, it guesses that I probably want to search for information about the people in my calendar for that day, so it preformats them into suggested searches. When I click through on each name, I can see my historical correspondence with that person on every place we’re connected online (email, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Greplin also scans through the correspondence to make a best guess at the person’s phone number, which has more than once been a total lifesaver.

But Greplin is just one app, and it’s only available on the iPhone. Imagine if these kind of connections could be made by the mobile operating system itself. Unlike iOS, Android at least lets apps communicate a bit between each other by signaling users’ intent when they switch between applications.

In fact, I would be okay with Google being the smart glue between services — understanding who I am, where I am, and what I prefer — and securely and respectfully moving that information around. That’s the kind of unified identity I’d want.

(Images courtesy of Flickr users Quinn Ryan Mattingly and Joi Ito)


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— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle