COULDA, WOULDA, SHOULDA
Lot of chatter on Techmeme this morning around Saul Hansell article in the New York Times this morning titled "Inbox 2.0: Yahoo! and Google to Turn E-mail into Social Networks". Here's the idea:
"Google and Yahoo have come up with new and very similar plans to respond to the challenge from MySpace and Facebook: They hope to turn their e-mail systems and personalized home page services (iGoogle and MyYahoo) into social networks.
Web-based e-mail systems already contain much of what Facebook calls the social graph — the connections between people. That’s why the social networks offer to import the e-mail address books of new users to jump-start their list of friends. Yahoo and Google realize that they have this information and can use it to build their own services that connect people to their contacts."
You could add Microsoft to this mix, which will likely announce their plans to do the same with their email services Hotmail and others. They may even try and build social network features into Outlook, the dominant email applications in businesses small and large around the world. Fred Wilson has a good post highlighting the numbers of email users we're talking about for these various services (except Outlook).
Start-ups like Xobni, are already providing software plug-ins that allow users to leverage the implicit social networks in their email boxes in Outlook and other services.
But I agree with Michael Arrington here. It's one thing to state these actions as possibilities, entirely another to create coherent, compelling services for users and business models around them.
Most of the incumbents are likely to see social networking as a feature rather than an application experience. Inasmuch as they're able to "extend and embrace" (to borrow a phrase from Microsoft) social networks in their platforms, they may succeed in slowing down stand-alone social networking services like Facebook, MySpace et al. It worked after all for Microsoft against Netscape a decade ago. But it's not entirely clear that the strategy would work here in the long-term given the higher number of variables.
We're still in the Social Networking 1.0 stage, so there's a lot of innovation and evolution to come. The odds however are that the next sets of breakthroughs are likely to come from start-ups rather than incumbents, if history is any guide. As a shareholder in most of the incumbents, I'd love to be proven wrong...this time.