Tuesday was a fun day for mixing business with pleasure. Google’s debut of the Chrome browser and Picasa Web’s facial recognition were not only good fodder for the trades and blogs, but everyone could use these products and I could talk about them with friends and family members. It’s like touring a winery and going from the fermentation tanks to the tasting room; here was something everyone could experience without intimate knowledge of what happens behind the scenes.
Google’s Chrome browser has been covered well, perhaps too well. It notched six spots in Google’s Hot Trends Top 100 on Monday, all but one in the top 25, and five lower ranking slots on Tuesday. Picasa hasn’t hit Hot Trends at all this week, although its users are buzzing over one of its new features.
The biggest change with Picasa is tag-based facial recognition for online albums (there are also several updates to the downloadable software; read more on the Google Photos blog). I spent some time with it, tagging over 1,000 faces, and it works incredibly well. To use it, you need to have a Picasa Web Albums account where you’ve uploaded photos – the more, the better. First, you tell Picasa to start the tagging. When it’s done, it will display groups of faces that it thinks are the same person, and you identify who they are. It then starts learning to recognize those people in all your photos. If you’ve tagged Grandmom Hilda in several pictures from your Labor Day barbecue and want to find those pictures you took of her over Thanksgiving, Picasa can now help dig them up.
My friends who have already tried it are enamored with it – but, tellingly, their first reaction was how creepy it was. That hasn’t stopped them from using it. It’s cutting edge for a consumer-facing tool, potentially useful, and viral in the sense that you want anyone you know who uses Picasa to test it out.
Chrome’s advantages over competitors, on the other hand, are more subtle. It’s faster, sort of — but then again, if your computer’s sluggish, the browser will be, too. The “omnibar,” the singular address and search bar that replaces the separate fields in other browsers, is different and has some useful features, but any functionality more advanced than what’s in the Firefox 3 “awesome bar” takes time to learn. Flipping around tabs is fun, but Firefox does that too, even if Chrome does more with it.
What’s more evident, after using it a bit, is what’s missing and what doesn’t work. I’ve had trouble with a lot of the functionality on Facebook and several features on TypePad, my blogging platform. There’s no full-screen mode, which I love for presentation screenshots. It doesn’t yet accommodate extensions, so my Twitter usage suffers without the Twitterfox plug-in (maybe tweeting less is a net positive though). Everyone will have their own features they’ll miss. At least YouTube works in Chrome (a Firefox 3 glitch causes major problems with video).
The potentially creepy factors also aren’t as obvious with Chrome. Conspiracy theorists and the most vocal pessimists either know too much or know too little; they either can understand all the ways Google monitors user behavior and thus assume the worst, or they think Google’s the U.S. embodiment of the secret police a la East Germany as depicted in the movie “The Lives of Others.” Google undoubtedly can mine intelligence from Chrome, but its reach through AdWords, Analytics, Desktop, Checkout, and its main search engine already gives Google incomprehensible exposure to consumer behavior online. In fact, some of Google’s latest services like Insights for Search revolve around sharing some of the data it has.
What might Google do with information from Chrome? Google’s really only in two businesses: increasing inventory (even for the Web as a whole, since Google’s share of voice across the Web keeps rising) and improving ad effectiveness. It either has to run more ads or monetize them better, or both. If Chrome works as Google hopes, Chrome will get people to spend more time on the Web, increasing Google’s inventory — and other publishers’ inventory, too. Might Google develop some new behavioral targeting programs in the process? Sure, but that benefits advertisers and consumers.
Those benefits happen behind the scenes, though. That’s not what I’ll be discussing with my friends. Instead, we’ll talk about how Chrome crashes less but kills some Facebook functionality. With Picasa, we’re more likely to talk about the darker implications. As Google gets better at identifying who’s in your photos, you can feel your privacy slipping away, even if you intended to make such photos public. Once those tagged photos Google recognizes start showing up in image search results, then the conversation will spread far beyond Picasa users. And when the facial recognition starts working without tags, this buzz over Chrome will seem trifling in retrospect.