SocialDeck is Latest Ingredient in Google’s Recipe For A Social Platform to Rival Facebook; Reviewing the List, From Aardvark to Zynga

8/31/10Follow @wroush

The latest addition to the budding Google social-and-gaming empire is SocialDeck, the maker of cross-platform social games such as Color Connect, Pet Hero MD, and Shake & Spell. The Waterloo, Ontario-based startup—which has also built a platform called Spark that lets game developers connect players on iPhones, BlackBerry devices, and Facebook—announced that it’s joining the Mountain View, CA-based search giant on its website today.

Google hasn’t yet announced the acquisition on its own blog, and terms of the acquisition haven’t been disclosed. But SocialDeck is a tiny company—comprised principally of co-founders Anish Acharya and Jeson Patel and CEO Dan Servos—and what really makes this acquisition interesting is its context.

In recent months Google has been snapping up a series of companies in the social networking and social gaming areas, including Israeli game maker LabPixies, San Francisco-based virtual goods startup Jambool, Palo Alto, CA-based Angstro, and, most prominently, San Francisco-based social application developer Slide. There were also widespread reports earlier this summer—unconfirmed by Google, so far—that the search company invested $100 million to $200 million in San Francisco social gaming juggernaut Zynga.

Slide founder Max Levchin, who first gained fame as the co-founder of PayPal, is reportedly in charge of building a new social networking platform for Google, under the code name “Google Me.” If such a platform exists—and if Google hopes to offer credible competition for Facebook, whose seemingly unstoppable growth could eventually threaten the search giant’s dominance of the Web—then Levchin will need to surpass the company’s limited success with earlier social software projects like Orkut, Google Buzz, and Google Wave.

So far Google has said very little about its social software plans, although there was a hint of what’s to come in the company’s statement on the Slide acquisition. “Slide has already created compelling social experiences for tens of millions of people across many platforms, and we’ve already built strong social elements into products like Gmail, Docs, Blogger, Picasa, and YouTube,” the company said. “As the Slide team joins Google, we’ll be investing even more to make Google services socially aware and expand these capabilities for our users across the Web.”

So, what might Google be cooking up with Google Me? It’s impossible to say for sure. But here’s a summary of some of the ingredients it’s probably working with, including the newest one, SocialDeck. This isn’t intended as a comprehensive list; if you have additions, please leave a comment or send me a note at wroush@xconomy.com. In alphabetical order:

Aardvark—Google acquired this social search service in February for a reported $50 million. Created by a group of ex-Googlers, the tool allows users to submit questions in plain English, which are then forwarded to the people in their social networks (including their Facebook friends) who are mostly likely to have a useful answer. Aardvark is still live on the Web at vark.com and is also part of Google Labs. It would be odd if a future Google social networking platform did not include some kind of socially-enhanced search feature, and Aardvark could provide the pattern for it.

Adams, Paul—a senior user experience researcher for Google, Adams posted an enormously lengthy and revealing slide deck on Google’s view of the social Web earlier this summer. Adams noted that our digital identities and social networks are increasingly following us across the Web, and that we’re getting more and more information from each other, rather than from search engines, businesses, or websites. But one problem with existing online social networks like Facebook, Adams wrote, is that they “don’t match the social networks we already have offline”—they lump everyone into one group of “friends” and don’t account for differences in the strength of social ties. Designers of social networks, Adams said, should account for the multiple groups and types of relationships in people’s lives, and for the fact that people might want to show different sides of their identities to these different groups.

Angstro—Acquired by Google just last week, Angstro created a real-time, social-network-savvy address book service called Knx.to, and had also been beta-testing a service called Noteworthy News, which delivered news about people and companies in a user’s social network. According to the Los Angeles Times, Angstro co-founder Rohit Khare “joined Google because he was sold by vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra’s pledge that Google is serious about social,” and now has a desk near Max Levchin’s.

Jaiku—This is old news, but possibly significant. Jaiku is basically Twitter with channels: a microblogging service where individual posts feed into group conversations around specific topics. Google bought the Finnish company in October, 2007. The code behind Jaiku has been open-sourced and ported to Google’s App Engine platform, and Google doesn’t have engineers actively assigned to the product. Still, Jaiku posts feed into Google’s real-time search results. A Google social platform would be incomplete without some sort of Twitter- or Jaiku-style real-time update function.

Jambool—This San Francisco startup created Social Gold, a virtual currency platform that game developers can plug into their online game worlds. In an August 13 blog post announcing that Google had acquired the company, co-founders Vikas Gupta and Reza Hussein, both Amazon veterans, implied that they expected to see the Social Gold platform grow with Google’s support. “We are thrilled to bring the Social Gold platform to Google’s global users,” they wrote. A virtual currency system akin to Facebook Credits would be a basic part of any Google social platform, especially if it’s heavy on games.

Gmail—In a pair of interesting posts, Om Malik and Liz Gannes at GigaOm have been speculating about the potential of Google’s existing e-mail platform as the launching pad for future social networking services. Google just added the ability to make VoIP calls directly from Gmail. If it were also to add interfaces to allow people to post tweets to Twitter and status updates to Facebook, Gmail would become “a full-blown communications platform” that “leverages three of Google’s mainstay strengths: infrastructure, search, and simplicity of user experience,” Malik argued. Meanwhile, Gannes pointed out how plugins like Rapportive, a “social CRM” service I profiled recently, are gradually turning Gmail into a bona fide app platform. It wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see Google revive some of the ideas from its soon-to-be-shuttered Google Wave project in the form of a more socially-aware e-mail system; Google did say in its announcement of Google Wave’s coming shutdown, after all, that it planned to “extend the technology for use in other Google projects.”

LabPixies—This fascinating little startup makes games for the iPhone and Android platforms as well as “personalized Web gadgets” that allow users customize Web environments such as their home pages on Yahoo or iGoogle, their profiles on Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, or Hi5. It’s one of the companies demonstrating creative uses for Google Gadgets, XML- and Javascript-based mini-apps that are the closest thing Google has to Facebook applications. “Working at Google will help us scale to more users as well as giving our team greater opportunities,” LabPixies’ founders wrote in April, when Google acquired the startup. “Google and LabPixies teams have worked on many projects together including the launch of global OpenSocial based gadgets. The acquisition is an opportunity to learn from each other to bring more apps to users, help developers and improve the overall developer ecosystem.”

Levchin, Max—If it is serious about social, then Google has the challenging task of building both an infrastructure for social networking and a set of actual applications or activities that would tap that infrastructure and attract users. Perhaps the most important asset that Google acquired when it bought Slide was Levchin, its founder and CEO, who has experience building both robust infrastructure products like PayPal and social applications like SuperPoke, one of Slide’s many successful Facebook apps. In a statement published August 6 on the Slide website, Levchin wrote that “Google is committed to building new, open and better ways for users to connect with others,” and called the acquisition “a tremendous opportunity for the two companies to come together to change the way people socialize one the Web.” Reflecting his key role at Google, Levchin is the search giant’s newest vice president of engineering, a title he shares with company veterans like Vint Cerf, Vic Gundotra, Udi Manber, and Andy Rubin.

Smarr, Joseph—The former chief technology officer at Plaxo, Smarr joined Google in December 2009 to “drive a new company-wide focus on the future of the Social Web,” in the words of a lengthy and illuminating blog post. “The industry is at a critical phase where the next few years may well determine the platform we live with for decades to come,” Smarr wrote. “Getting the future of the Social Web right-including identity, privacy, data portability, messaging, real-time data, and a distributed social graph-is just as important” to Google as its investments in infrastructure technologies like HTML5, the Android mobile operating system, and the Chrome browser, Smarr said. As an advocate of the OpenID website registration system at Plaxo, Smarr may be working to make sure that any emerging Google social networking platform at Google is based around open, decentralized standards for storing users’ online identities and passwords.

SocialDeck—As noted above, SocialDeck’s focus is on making games that stretch across the boundaries between mobile and Web-based social networking, and between Apple, Facebook, and Research in Motion. The company raised a small round of venture backing in March 2009 from the BlackBerry Partners Fund, a venture fund set up by Research In Motion to support companies developing mobile applications and services. “Google Me” would be incomplete without a mobile component, and the company may have realized that it needs to stretch beyond its Android competence to find people understand iPhones and BlackBerry devices.

Zynga—While Google’s alleged investment in this red-hot social gaming company hasn’t been confirmed, and hasn’t even shown up in regulatory filings, it would be logical for the Facebook- and MySpace-centric game developer to hedge its bets by expanding to additional platforms. Look for a Google social gaming platform to include a few games from Zynga.

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

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  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Update: Just came across a nice AdAge article on this same theme: Google Sees Facebook Threat in String of Deals. It includes an informative chart showing most of Google’s acquisitions since February.