Google's Art of War — With Facebook

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I don't know anything about art, but I know a little about Google. And I Googled this: Jeff Koons.

He's the artist whose "Chrome Tulips" decorated Google's minimalist search box yesterday morning. Lovely stuff. Beneath the empty box was a link to something called iGoogle Artist Themes ("What happens when great art mixes with your homepage?"). Users who clicked on the link got to choose from among 70 artists' "themes." From the likes of such commercial artists as Marc Ecko, Diane von Furstenberg, NIGO, Michael Graves and Dolce Gabbana, users could select a theme and personalize their iGoogle page, a place that Google dearly hopes will quickly become your start page.

It seems pretty sweet. More free stuff from Google! And, by the way, raise your hand if you never used iGoogle or even knew it existed.

Which, of course, was the point. Or part of it. A big business is at stake here, and, notwithstanding Google's desire for you to "select world-class art that really reflects your personality," as Google VP Marissa Mayer wrote on her blog yesterday morning, getting people to move from minimalist Google Classic to iGoogle is a key strategic goal for the company. (And if it's possible to get the word Google into that sentence anymore than I did, I'll customize your homepage myself.)

You can think of iGoogle as part of the company's answer to Facebook.

Facebook rocked Google's world last summer when it opened up its network to software developers and invited them to launch tiny applications there. The apps (also known elsewhere as widgets and gadgets) were fun and allowed people to communicate better or just horse around. Because there was more to do there, people started joining Facebook in big numbers, to play Scrabulous, write on walls and fling stuff at each other. The population quickly surpassed 50 million users — and that, in turn, created a great and wonderful market for software developers to build even more apps. With minimal work, developers could write apps that, if successful, could make them money via advertising. The more people who installed their apps, the more money they made. (A friend in that business recently told me about guys who routinely haul in as much $25,000 a day while their apps are hot.)

What Facebook did is known in the tech business as creating a "platform." It's a way for Facebook to make a marketplace that enables others to get rich — and the richer they get, the richer Facebook gets. There are many examples of platform building in Techland, but the most famous was Microsoft, whose Windows platform really took off with third-party software developers in 1987.

Google, which makes its money on a free and open Web, was not happy with the Facebook platform. That's because what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook. Google would much prefer that you come out and play on its platform — the wide-open Web. Don't stay behind Facebook's closed doors! Hie thee to the Web and start searching for things. That's how Google makes its money.

So, last fall, Google rallied all the other major social networks (MySpace, Bebo, Hi5 and so on) and announced a new initiative called OpenSocial. OpenSocial wants to be like Facebook's platform, only much bigger: Widget makers can write applications for it and they can run anywhere — on MySpace, Bebo and Google's own social network, Orkut, which is very big in Brazil.

Google's platform could actually dwarf Facebook — if it ever gets off the ground.

And that, I would submit, is what the whole artist theme's event was really about yesterday: iGoogle is nothing more than a big old bucket of widgets, the front end to its OpenSocial platform.What better way to get people to use it than an eye-catching event like artists' themes? (There's also a big party in New York Thursday night to celebrate the artists.)

I asked Google how much traffic the chrome tulips drove to iGoogle, but a company spokesperson declined to comment, saying only that Google had received "positive feedback" from users. She said that iGoogle currently accounts for 20 percent of visits to Google's home page — a proportion, I bet, that Google would love to reverse. The spokesperson also declined to address any link between iGoogle and OpenSocial, noting only that "we recently launched an iGoogle sandbox to developers, which gives developers the ability to build more interactive gadgets that can incorporate OpenSocial." Indeed, you can find more than 75,000 "gadgets" to hang on your iGoogle page these days. (Click on the tab next to Themes.)

And for the record? I installed Adventure in Lollypop Land by Mark Frauenfelder on my iGoogle homepage. Weird — I never used iGoogle before.