Google+ may still be in limited trial and potentially never go mainstream but, for the first time, Facebook is having to consider the possibility of a viable competitor.
A lot has been said about the changes Facebook have made to their sharing options. Some have argued they are a direct copy of Google+ inferring that Facebook is now dancing to Google's tune. Others have correctly pointed out that the functionality itself already existed but was tucked away within a confusing UI.
When Google+ launched I remarked that, whether it succeeds or not, it was much-needed as the social web had stagnated. The likes of Twitter and Facebook were existing almost in a vacuum with little need for change.
It's not just stealing
PC v Mac, Android v iPhone, the browser wars - it's not just about stealing features from the competition. Once a feature exists on one platform the consumer comes to expect it no matter what they are using. Popular functionality becomes the de facto industry standard by virtue of demand - if your platform doesn't have it your customers will want to know why.
Developers must then look at how that feature can be adopted within the existing design in order to appease the user. It doesn't have to be exactly the same or even quite as good - just as long as it is enough to keep them happy and prevent them from switching to the competition (just as I said when Facebook launched Skype video chat in response to Hangouts).
You don't need to kill the competition, just stop your user base from migrating away by giving them what they think they want.
Tom Anderson describes this as the "social norm" (Google+ link) and uses this as a basis for explaining why Facebook might appear to have taken a U-turn on how data is shared on the site.
Competition is key
Competition works as an incentive both ways - whether someone else comes in and competes in your area or if you launch something which competes with someone else.
By launching Plus Google have been forced to rethink the way it does design which has led to the clean interface we see in Plus and which is now spreading to other apps in the Google stable. Moving into competition with Facebook has demanded this.
Conversely, by having Google launch a realistic competitor in the social space Facebook appears to have been forced to rethink the way it exposes its functionality. Features that have been in Facebook for years but were tucked away and largely unknown have had to be brought to the fore in a move to simplify the operation of the site and its functions.
Has the launch of Google+ convinced Facebook of the value of targeted sharing and the need for this to be easily accessible to the user? Or is it that Facebook must react and comply with the social norm because it is expected of them?
As is apparent from the recent comments about user numbers in relation to the fees applied to social gaming Facebook is not directly scared by Google+ at the moment but it is worried about losing members to the competition so will now do "just enough" to conform to the social norm and retain its users which is something the service has not previously had to do.
Image by Niklas Wikström