Google introduced Friend Connect in late 2008, just as Facebook debuted Facebook Connect. Both companies were vying to become the default authentication layer for the Web, something Microsoft has been trying to do at least since its 2007 release of Windows Live ID Web Authentication SDK (now called simply Microsoft Account).
Facebook won, notwithstanding the recent bug that crashed websites using its authentication system. Facebook Connect went on to be re-branded Facebook Login and handles authentication for some 9 million websites and mobile apps. Google shut down Friend Connect in March 2012 as it shifted focus to Google+ services.
[ How do you measure user interaction in social media? Read Are Universal Social Engagement Standards Possible? ]
Now that Google has rehabilitated its social spine -- as the company sometimes refers to Google+ -- it is ready for a rematch against Facebook Login. As of December 2012, Google claimed that 500 million people have registered for Google+, that 235 million people interact with the service indirectly through +1 buttons and connecting with friends in Search and that 135 million engage with Google+ content streams (posts).
Google's effort to become an essential authentication provider isn't just about establishing legitimacy as a social gatekeeper. It's about revenue and customer relationships, because credit card and shipping data tends to end up being associated with identity data. It's about competing with other platform players -- like Apple, which had over 400 million iTunes Accounts last year and as of January had more than 250 million iCloud users; and Amazon, which has over 152 million active customer accounts.
But there's no mistaking Google's intention to challenge Facebook in particular. In a blog post, Seth Sternberg, director of product management for Google+, makes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's conceit of "frictionless sharing" sound like a bad encounter with a skunk.
"With Google+ Sign-In and circles you decide who to share with, if at all," Sternberg said. "In addition, Google+ doesn't let apps spray 'frictionless' updates all over the stream, so app activity will only appear when it's relevant -- like when you're actually looking for it."
Google's promise, then, is that Google+ provides more control over how content is shared, thereby creating less unwelcomed sharing, which some users consider spam.
For developers, Google+ Sign-In, like Facebook Login, provides both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, using Google+ Sign-In is likely to be easier than coding a custom authentication system and is probably more secure. Google is also making it easier to install Android apps from websites that include Google+ Sign-In. Downloading an Android app from Google Play to an Android device now can be initiated through a publisher's website with a single click.
On the minus side, three's a crowd when it comes to business relationships. Developers who abstain from engaging with customers allow Google to consummate that relationship. Not only does this make developers more beholden to Google (or Facebook), it can also work against them: If customers aren't comfortable with the privacy practices of the authentication provider, they may decline to use the developer's software or service.
In short, developers should think carefully about whether implementing Google+ Sign-In signs away too much.
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