Picture this. You're hanging out, doing some Gmailing and Googling to find this one Parks and Recreation clip on YouTube. (Ugh, YouTube never has the good teevee clips because of all that copyright business.) Hulu has it. In fact, they have entire episodes. So you copy the URL for the "Freddy Spaghetti" season finale, jump back to Gmail and-- Wait, maybe it's better to post this to Facebook. That way people can watch it and make some jokes about how much they love Lil' Sebastian, the little miniature pony, and it would almost be like you were sitting around a living room with your friends on couches and sort of hanging out like kids used to do.
Google's thought about this scenario, and presumably, so has Hulu. The pioneering video site has lawyered up in anticipation of an acquisition, and folks in both Hollywood and Silicon Valley are speculating like crazy over who the buyer might be. Unnamed "people familiar with the situation" told The Los Angeles Times that it's Google. A couple of weeks ago, anonymous sources also said that Yahoo was going to buy Hulu, but nevermind that. Google makes much more sense, especially in light of the launch Google+, a new social layer for all Google products.
As we pointed out earlier, it's easy to think about Google+ as a Facebook clone. At first glance, it looks like any other social network with a profile picture in the upper lefthand corner and the ability to draw friend connections and share links on a wall and all that. A deeper dive into the unique features to Google+ shows that you can group friends into Circles and set up virtual Hangouts with your friends. Hangouts are basically video-enabled group chats. You set up a Hangout, send the URL to whomever you want to join, and as everybody joins you can see their faces via webcam and chat in real time. Maya Baratz at The Wall Street Journal made a timely observation as she was checking out the new features on Thursday night. "What if Google+, I dunno, partnered w Hulu or Netflix for viewers watch movies together via hangouts," Baratz said on Twitter. "Now that would ruffle FB's feathers."
That's actually a terrific idea. Let's revisit the original, very complicated scenario of trying to gather friends around a Parks and Recreation episode. Hangouts already has a button on the bottom that let's you find a YouTube video and watch it with your friends. Instead of the five-step process from Gmail to Search to YouTube to Hulu to Facebook for sharing and commenting, Hangouts does it all in the Google ecosystem, and it looks like fun. This is a lonely-looking example, but you get the point:
Google of course owns YouTube and can funnel those videos into Google+ very easily. Buying Hulu would expand that library to include TV episodes, feature-length films and clips not otherwise available on YouTube.
Facebook would love to do something like this, and Hulu is actually already working with them on it. Around the same time the LA Times reported on the Google rumor, Hulu announced some new Facebook features that made it easier to comment at a specific moment in a Hulu video and share it on your friends' Walls. The new feature even embeds the video on your Wall to create a "water cooler" effect. It cuts out a couple of steps, but it still doesn't compare to watching your friends' faces as they react to TV shows and chat about it in real-time.
Over at All Facebook, a blog that covers exactly what the name suggests, Nick O'Neill points out how Google+'s total integration could serve as a real threat to Facebook. Currently the average user spends about 30 minutes per a day on Facebook; part of the reason why that number's not higher is that people have to click off of Facebook to do other things like search for movies or check stock quotes. O'Neill writes:
To be honest, my gut reaction after using Google Plus was initially, “Why on earth would anybody switch to this from Facebook?”
However, when I loaded up Google Finance as I do every morning, I suddenly realized that I was asking the wrong question. The reality is that users won’t have the option of not using Google Plus.
Google already has more users than Facebook, over one billion. They aren’t going to suddenly leave Facebook in droves, they’re just going to spend more time on all the sites in Google’s network. That big notifications box in the top right of all Google sites is the reason why.
As I’m browsing around Google-powered sites there’s occasionally a red notification alert that pops up and immediately grabs my attention. Soon enough I’m clicking through the various notifications and seeing what my friends have shared and who has recently begun sharing with me.
Mark Zuckerberg himself said that this kind of experience would be the future of the internet. And Facebook's recent addition of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to their board hints that they're starting to plan for this future. "I just think over the next two, three years, we’re going to start to see that in more and more industries, and the next ones I would expect are going to be media-type industries--which are things that you typically do with your friends," said Zuckerberg at an industry event in Seattle on Wednesday. "You watch movies with your friends, you watch TV with your friends, you discuss books and music with your friends, you listen to music with your friends. Those are pretty ripe to be disrupted and have just completely new approaches happen."
If the rumors are true and Google manages to buy Hulu and integrate it into Google+, Facebook would be looking at a disruption indeed. That is, if Google manages to finagle its way out of this enormous anti-trust investigation.
UPDATE: It's all happening so fast. Just after the Google + launch, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be launching something "awesome" on July 6. Indeed, Facebook sent out invitations to the press on Friday, and Michael Arrington at TechCrunch reports that the new feature is a video chat product in partnership with Skype:
The product has been built on Skype and will include a desktop component. It’s not clear to me whether that means it will just work if a user has Skype already installed on the computer, or if additional software will need to be downloaded even if the user already uses Skype. But it’s clear that there’s very deep integration between the products, and from the user’s perspective, the product will be an in browser experience.
It looks like Google+ Hangouts will face some competition very very soon.