I finally understand Google's überstrategy for dominating the future of online everything.
Here it is: Coalesce all of its best products into a single super product that marginalizes smaller rivals to the point of irrelevance and clobbers Facebook with total superiority.
That single super product is Google+.
Why features beat products
The most important distinction in Silicon Valley is this: Is it a product or a feature?
Venture capitalists have to be experts in this distinction, because an IT tool that can't stand on its own as a viable, marketable product usually isn't worth investing in.
Digital cameras were among the hottest categories of consumer electronics gadgets from the late 90s until fairly recently. A point-and-shoot, pocket-size digital camera was a hot product.
But now it's transitioning from a product to a feature -- of cellphones. Mainstream smartphones like the iPhone 4S and the HTC Evo 4G have 8-megapixel cameras, quality optics and HD video capability. People who have smartphones already have decent cameras. That's why sales of point-and-shoot digital cameras are plateauing and will inevitably decline over the next few years.
Here's another example: In the 1990s, zip file-compression utilities were a major part of the software industry. People used to pay for them.
But in 1998, Microsoft made zip support a feature of Windows. And in 2004, http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9137060/Microsoft_Update_Latest_news_features_reviews_opinions_and_more made zip a feature of Mac OS X.
Zip compression has been marginalized as a product. You don't see a lot of startups wanting to get into the zip racket.
People used to seek out and download instant messaging applications like PowWow, ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger. IM was a serious product category.
Today, chat has become a feature of Facebook, Gmail, Android and the iPhone. IM has been marginalized as a discrete product category.
Once something is a successful feature, it can usually no longer thrive as a product.
And that's how Google plans to dominate the future of the Internet. Many of the product categories for online services will be marginalized as Google makes these technologies mere features of Google+.
How Google products become Google+ features
Google+ launched as an invitation-only "project" on June 28 -- just five and a half months ago. It opened to the public Sept. 20 -- less than three months ago.
From the beginning, Google+ had already integrated features that were available elsewhere as products. Hangouts, for example, offers most of the functionality of Skype. Google+ also came integrated with Picasa, a photo management service that Google acquired in 2004. Google+ also incorporated, to some degree, Google's Gmail application, as well as chat. The Sparks feature represented a partial integration of Google News.
But since the launch, Google has "integrated" a dozen more major products into Google+, turning them into de facto features. This process starts with a minor integration and evolves into a major one.
The +1 button, which preceded Google+, was integrated into the service Aug. 24. When you find a +1 button on any website, clicking it offers a share box for publishing a link on Google+. These +1 shares are called "Snippets" by Google.
The company integrated Google Maps on Sept. 14, adding Snippets from that service for publishing on Google+. Maps users can share Snippets of driving directions, hotel information and other Maps data with their Google+ circles from Maps.
On Sept. 20, Google announced the ability to do Google Docs screen-sharing on Google+ Hangouts. It also announced a Search capability, which appears to be a subset of Google Search and which uses all the standard Google Search operators for finding posts on Google+.
Google announced that Chrome apps were getting the Google+ treatment Oct. 25. When Plus members review apps, their profiles are linked from the review.
On Oct. 31, Google integrated its RSS reader, Google Reader, into Google+, replacing that service's social features with those on Google+, for example replacing reader "friending" and "following" with Google+ "circling."
On Nov. 3, Google rolled out Google+ integrations with YouTube and Chrome. Google+ always supported YouTube, but now it has a dedicated YouTube button that enables quick searches of the video service, which then plays videos in a pop-up window. Google also announced a Chrome extension for adding +1 to any Web page, even if the site owner hasn't implemented the button.
On Nov. 16, Google rolled out its previously announced Google Music service as a music sharing service via Google+.
Google announced a redesigned Google bar that will grace the top of its biggest products, including Search, News, Maps, Translate, Gmail and many others. The new bar unifies these services with Google+, with sharing and notifications always visible and just a click away.
On Dec. 1, Google further integrated YouTube, enabling users to link their YouTube accounts to their Google+ profiles.
And most recently, on Dec. 8, Google announced major additional integrations with both Gmail and Contacts. Now, when you get email from Google+ users, you can see their most recent posts shared with you or made public by them on the right side of the email, with an option to circle them and see their contact information if they've shared it publicly.
You can also sort email with Circles. For example, you can tell Gmail to show email only from people in your "Family" circle. You can also now share pictures that come as email attachments on Google+ with one click.
When Google+ members are in your contacts, their publicly shared or personally shared information, such as email addresses and phone numbers, is automatically filled in, and profile information is also added to the contact.
What all this means is that if you're using +1s, Maps, Search, Chrome apps, Chrome, Reader, YouTube, Google Music, News, Translate, Gmail or Contacts, congratulations: You're one of the more than 1 billion people who use Google+ every month.
The clear trend is the integration of an increasing number of Google products into Google+ -- currently happening at the rate of one new integration every two weeks -- and also an increasing degree of integration for those previously brought in.
Follow the trend lines and see how Google+ becomes Google's one and only major product.
What Google will integrate in the future: Just about everything
I believe that Google will not only complete the 12 products it has already started to integrate, but it will fully integrate other products, like Google Earth, Blogger, Calendar, Docs, Latitude, Wallet, Product Search, Books, Voice, Places and others.
When Google co-founder Larry Page became CEO, he sent a high-impact memo to everyone in the company informing them that bonuses for all employees would be directly tied to the entire company's success in "social media," by which he meant the company's "strategy to integrate relationships, sharing and identity across our products."
Google has demonstrated that existing social products are to be replaced by Google+ -- in fact most of them already have been. Page's "relationships, sharing and identity" language is just prelaunch code that means "Google+."
In other words, the Page commandment means that Google+ is the "product," and everything else Google does is to become a "feature" of that product.
If you think about it, the name "Google+" is another way of saying "Google 2.0." Google is radically transforming itself from a company that offers many disconnected, stand-alone "products," into a company that offers one super product with many integrated "features."
How 'featurization' will marginalize the competition
When a major company like Google adds a product to a market with competing products, it validates the market. But when it turns those products into features, it sucks the oxygen out of the market for those products.
For example, once Latitude is an easy-to-use and highly visible feature inside Google+, Foursquare will find it difficult to offer similar functionality in the form of a product.
As Blogger becomes an easily customizable face for a Google+ public stream, Tumblr will have more trouble succeeding with its blogging product.
And so on, for the dozens of major online products that Google will transform into mere Google+ features.
You don't buy and carry a pocket-size point-and-shoot camera when you've already got an 8-megapixel camera feature in the cellphone you always carry anyway. And you don't sign up for online products when that same functionality is already available as an easy-to-use feature on the main page that you're already signed up for.
Why Google will win the war with Facebook
As hundreds of smaller social and online startups are suffocated by Google's aggressive "featurization" of products, we will find ourselves with an Internet dominated by two titans: Google and Facebook.
And between these two giants, it will be no contest. Google will almost certainly have vastly superior search -- it's Google, after all -- superior messaging, superior office documents, superior spam filtering, superior video chat -- superior everything.
Right now, Google+ is viewed as a young and immature "startup" competing against the mighty Facebook. But as Google transforms one powerful Google product after another into Google+ features, Facebook will increasingly struggle to compete.
Google+ by itself looks like no match for Facebook. But the integrated combination of every Google tool is far better and far more compelling than just Facebook -- and collectively those tools already have far more users. And that's where Google is headed.
As Google integrates every major product increasingly into Google+, those products become features, and Google+ becomes the Google product.
I think Google's massive "featurization" effort will marginalize a hundred product markets, and crush Facebook with overwhelming superiority.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com,