Google is, in some senses, a company in a quandry. Its core search business is largely unthreatened by rivals - despite all of Microsoft's muscle, Bing remains a pretty undistinguished challenger, and every other major threat was seen off years ago. However, the company faces a much bigger problem in the medium term - the possibility that indexed search itself may be replaced for many key Internet functions, rendering Google's dominance just as obsolete as that of the newspaper companies who despise it so.
We can already see the beginnings of this transition, as people increasingly move towards recommendation and reputation based access of data and services online, rather than relying on search algorithms. Facebook presently serves as a key clearing house for this kind of transaction, with the social graph embodied in the service providing users with a powerful recommendation and discovery system. Other services such as Twitter are nibbling at the edges of this new market, but Google's attempts to engage with it - most notably in the form of Buzz, a Twitter clone launched earlier this year - have fallen flat.
However, Google has a unique set of advantages at its disposal which could flip the tables in its favour. It has an unrivalled capacity for gathering data about its users, hosting not only their searches but in many cases their email, their list of frequently read publications (via Google Reader) and even their phone service, through Google Voice. It has YouTube. It has a largely trusted status with its hundreds of millions of users, undermined only minimally by the tiny minority who voice (often legitimate) concerns about privacy and security.
It has some of the most advanced web application technology in the world, courtesy of successful projects like Gmail - and failed ones like Wave and Buzz, both of which failed to ignite the market but created plenty of useful and recycleable architecture. And let's not forget that it also has Android, a mobile operating system gradually picking up serious traction in its contest with Apple's iOS, and on the horizon, Chrome OS, which seems likely to make quite an impact in the low-powered device space.
In short, Google could, in theory, build a social service which beats Facebook at its own game, just as Facebook pushed MySpace into irrelevance. What it lacks - what it is, apparently, buying at a rate of knots - is the talent to build an entertaining, appealing, compelling social service, with the kind of games and applications which have sustained Facebook's lead in the market.
Hence the fact that it looks, right now, like Google is very keen to become a gaming giant - not in consoles, but in online gaming and mobile gaming, using web browsers and Android phones as its key platforms. It makes sense. It even fits the Google philosophy; the company has, all along, understood that the most effective business model online involves attracting users in droves and then monetising around the edges, leaving your core offering free to grow.
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