Those on Gmail have my heartfelt sympathies. Additionally, if you also use LinkedIn, welcome to hell !

Let’s first talk about Gmail. Have you seen what’s happening off-late: gmail is getting painfully slower by the hour, it freezes every now and then,.. I am now seriously thinking of switching over to a ‘simple’ webmail (does anyone know any webmail without any GUI ?)..maybe back to my old Hotmail account :) or one of those not-so-fancy mails that don’t compromise the basic functions of a webmail over its other commercial interests, howsoever seductive they might be.

When Gmail came, it wanted to create an ‘exclusive club’ of gmail users – if you were a nobody (like I was, and still am, but I was a bigger nobody back then), you just could not sign-up by yourself, unless invited by a kind friend ! The official reason was that they wanted to reduce spam – the logic being: friends will get their friends on gmail, and since friends won’t spam their friends, there won’t ever be any spam on gmail. How naive…rather, how stupid ! Today I have more mails in my  gmail spam than on all my other mails put together ! But then, I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the story. Gmail created this exclusive club which for a moment seemed to hold itself admirably well against spam. People thought the magic was working. However, nothing could be far from the truth. The spam was not there not because of this friends thingy, but because no one new those new email ids ! Once people came on gmail, they started flaunting their ‘exclusive’ mail ids, registering here and there on the net, and the next thing people woke up to was their inbox full of spam (ok, in gmail world, the ‘inbox’ would probably never be full, but then you do get the point). However, I must compliment gmail guys on the efficiency of their spam filter – it works pretty well.

However, spam is not the biggest problem plaguing gmail today. The biggest problem is its slow performance , and that you are paying for this slowness ! When you open an email, adrenalin starts flowing through gmail’s celebrated algorithms – they go through your entire mail (don’t be shocked by this machine-led invasion on your privacy) and try to match words in your email with those from their paid-search so that those paid ads / targetted ads could be directed at your screen. Gmail doesn’t do it because it loves you – they do it because popping every ad on your screen makes them some money, and if you happen to click on one of those annoying ads, google’s cash registers get few more cents :)

The final problem is a classic product management problem. To their credit, gmail has not fallen prey to that mindset yet, but it is still relevant for this discussion (and actually, the #1 reason behind LinkedIn problem discussed ahead). When Hotmail came, it appealed simply because it was the first one – it was a highly disruptive force. Very soon, we had the copycats marching down as fast as they could in the race to get other users on the net to sign up on their service. Mind you, a free service with no revenue model whatsoever. Over time, everyone started competing with each other, and today, almost every webmail looks very similar to any other webmail – so much so, that only the URL is different ! What started as a simple feature on product manager’s wishlist got diluted down so much that eventually there was no differentiation left anymore. Gmail does stand proudly on the victory stand so far (for who has seen tomorrow ?), having resisted the pressure to mimic other webmails. Why, even the simple concept of folders (other than inbox, sent and trash) have not yet been introduced in gmail. Instead, the concept of ‘labels’ is something that were are slowly getting used to live with. However, another notable product has fallen very cheaply to this sin.

So, what is LinkedIn doing these days. In the race to overnight lose its virginity to mainstream pulp features, it is working overtime to fast lose its billing as a no-nonsense social networking platform for professionals (did I say ‘senior professionals’). It is meekly surrendering to those wal-mart features that make it mimic the cheap Made-in-China fakes, in the sense that you can’t complain that LinkedIn doesn’t have this feature…anymore. But, and that is a big BUT…doesn LinkedIn have to do it ? I mean, does an average user on LinkedIn want those cheap features (he has several other options). The fact he is on LinkedIn is because of the ‘elite’ features that it offers. Now that it offers all orkut-ish features, it is indeed worth introspecting what is the value he is getting on LinkedIn, notwithstanding a free service. Now you can inform people of your travel plans, share your blogs,  events with people on your network…and the worst part is none of them work. The events app can’t still list events in Bangalore when I check that option. The blog app takes an eternity to list anything that looks like a blog for all of my 600+ connections and how much I wish I could ‘control’ what I wanted to see. The net result is that my LinkedIn is slower, never shows the right information, and shows me all information that I don’t care ! Could they please work those bugs and create a better way for me to control what I care to see…and did I say, I get to control it !

My feeling is what we saw in webmail warfare which them happened to browsers (and still continuing) has now entered next round with social networking platforms. All started with their own unique value preposition, but succumbed to roadside greed and are now copying features like maniac in a race to outsmart the one ahead in race. The all want to suddenly offer uploading pictures, sharing music, video, chat, travel information, where you have been on earth, books that you like, movies that you like, schools you have been to, and so on. What they don’t realize is that people who came to their site came and stayed because they liked something unique about their product and service. They might not like (or want to use) all those pulp features that were anyway available on other sites even when they came to this site in the first place. And to satisfy their urge to use those pulp features, they are most probably already on those sites as well. So, by bundling those pulp features, you are only probably diluting your offering. Also, it is depriving you of your precious R&D dollars who could have been doing something little more useful, like creating brand-new features out of thin air to continue maintaining your competitive advantage. But then, common sense is still not so common a commodity !

Here is my prediction: in next two to three years, every mainstream social networking platform will look the same. The innovation will gradually die, and the blind race to mimic other players will lead to further blunting of the axe. Of course, no one will still make any money from this service – for there are already so many free platforms a dime a dozen that if you even as much as dream to make your service a paid service, people will soon mass migrate and find another option. Copying the webmail product management approach in social networking platforms will make the suffering a little more painful…not for them…but for you as a user.