Google’s Cambridge Office Assumes Growing Role Inside Search Giant

4/12/10Follow @wroush

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other content. So, part of it is being very knowledgeable about the infrastructure of Book Search, and part of it is becoming involved in content from other sources. That’s an area where we have diversified the set of things we work on, building off that core experience we have.

X: And what’s the latest on Google Friend Connect, which was your first wholly home-grown product in the Cambridge office? I haven’t seen any new announcements about that lately.

SV: Friend Connect is run exclusively out of this office, and there are still people working on it. The basic idea is trying to make all of the Internet more social. Any webmaster can easily add a few lines of code—in the same way that they add a few lines of code to allow AdSense ads to be shown—and they can then add social features to their site. With the release of Google Buzz, there has obviously been a renewed interest in Google’s part in providing a richer social experience. I think what we’re doing here is very much in line with that overall effort.

There are a lot of things in the works right now with Friend Connect, so I can’t say too much about it, but the short version is that the social experience is deepening significantly, as Google adds more and more social features to its products. We want to be able to make those things available to webmasters more broadly.

X: Speaking of the social Web: I know that Google Wave isn’t one of your projects here, but there’s been a lot of buzz about it, no pun intended. And since I’m sitting here at Google, I want to ask you for your impressions of it. Personally, I haven’t quite figured out who it’s aimed at, or what it’s good for.

SV: That’s a project out of Google Sydney. It’s phenomenal as a collaborative tool to work on shared documents, in ways that no other product on the market allows. It captures the combination of real-time exchanges on those documents, sharing of the document, and the ability to play back the edit history of those documents. To see the value in that collaborative experience, you need a critical mass of people who are not physically together working on a shared thing, with a combination of real-time and non-real-time exchange. That, I believe, is the real sweet spot for Wave. But it’s a challenge because you do have to have a critical mass for acceptance and adoption.

We use it in my team, locally. And it’s amazing how once you start using Wave, you discover that you’ve been working around problems that had horrible solutions. For example, you have an instant message exchange, and now you want to incorporate pieces of that into a document. But those are two separate tools, and you end up copying and pasting and re-editing as opposed to doing that right inside the document. If you look at the number of rounds a document goes through in terms of editing and sharing, it makes no sense to have individual IM exchanges decoupled from the document and the overall group. That’s just one example where as soon as you see a different way of doing it, you say, “Oh my god, of course you would do it this way.” But for many people, their first experience with Wave is one of an e-mail system, and that’s not where it really shines.

X: Last question. I’ve heard people in the local tech community, particularly in the last year or so, commenting on what a remarkable job Microsoft has done of opening up the space at their New England R&D Center, and hosting events and doing outreach, whereas Google doesn’t seem to be as active in the community. You don’t have an equivalent facility here at Cambridge Center, so it’s probably harder for you to host big events. But I know you do host some things here, so I’m curious about how you feel about those comments.

SV: I think what’s critical to Google’s success here is having this be a place that has a large, vibrant engineering community. I think the contributions of all of the companies in this area that make that happen are good for everybody. The problem we have is keeping people from leaving this area, not competition among the companies that are here. But yes, I see what you’re saying. I think we actually do a lot of things. I hosted an event here two weeks ago for alumni from UMass, where I got my PhD. That was 80 people from the Boston area. And we have events on a fairly regular basis. We do events for non-profits talking about how they can use Google’s free services—we just did one of those for the Boston Chamber of Commerce. But I think you’re right that there is a real value to having shared space that people can go to. I think there needs to be more of that, and I’d like to see it happen here more as well.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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