Google Buys Dodgeball

Google is a search engine. Dodgeball is an online social networking service. What could the two possibly have in common to make Google decide to buy Dodgeball? A closer look at the deal reveals a lot more potential synergy than you might think.

I’ve never been interested in living in a big city. With the direction I’m seeing technology trends going lately, though, that means I miss out on some fun and useful services. For instance, those who can remember services that were around before the technology bubble burst back in 2001 may recall Webvan, an online grocery delivery service that operated in large cities such as New York and San Francisco before declaring bankruptcy. In mid-May, Google purchased Dodgeball, an online company with a rather different city-based service.

Dodgeball offers an online social networking service that actually encourages friends to meet offline. It makes use of cell phone text messaging. Basically, it works like this: when you go out to a bar, restaurant, nightclub, or other local gathering spot, you can send a text message to Dodgeball checking in your location. Dodgeball then sends a text message to your Dodgeball-using friends that tells them where you are, and suggests that they drop by and say hi.

Dodgeball doesn’t stop there, though. After contacting your friends, it finds out whether any friends of your friends who use Dodgeball are currently within 10 blocks of your location. If they are, Dodgeball sends them a text message that lets them know where you are and the name of your mutual friend. If their phone supports it, the message may include a photo. As with friends, it’s up to the recipient of the text message whether to stop by. I don’t know about you, but I’ve rarely been disappointed when I’ve met friends of friends informally. In this case, Dodgeball is clearly offering an opportunity to expand your social network that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

The service gets even more intriguing from this point. The company founders realized that you don’t suddenly become immune to getting a crush on someone after you graduate from high school. So Dodgeball lets you list up to five other Dodgeball members on whom you have crushes. If your crush checks in within 10 blocks of where you have checked in, Dodgeball sends two messages: first, your crush gets a message that tells them your name and location, and second, you get a message that lets you know that one of your crushes is nearby (so you should “make yourself look nice”).

Users can also contact Dodgeball to help them find the address of a particular venue. Additionally, as you would expect to be able to do given the features already described, Dodgeball members can send a message to all of their friends for an impromptu get-together. As of this writing, Dodgeball’s service is available in 22 cities throughout the United States, including New York, Miami, Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago, and New Orleans.

New York-based Dodgeball is the brainchild of Dennis Crowley and Alex Rainert. It formally launched only a year ago. Crowley’s big interest for the last five years has been playing with the ways people use mobile devices to help coordinate social interactions. His credits include developing and managing mobile applications for Vindigo, MTV Networks, and ABC; he has also presented examples of his work at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology conference.

Rainert, for his part, has been working for the past six years on creating intuitive interfaces for various platforms. These platforms have included software, Web, kiosk, wireless, iTV and broadband for clients such as Verizon, IBM, HBO, and 3COM. Working on both the technology and the user interface for a project puts him in a unique position to understand both the user’s needs and what is technologically possible.

Dodgeball grew out of a grad school project started by Crowley and Rainert at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. It began receiving press coverage back in 2000, when all it did was allow people to exchange information about what they thought of various night spots around New York City. By the end of 2003, Dodgeball had upgraded its offerings, going from simply a restaurant review service to something that could “speed up serendipity,” in its owners’ words.

The service, by the way, is free, and is not currently ad-supported. Sign up is very simple. It involves filling out a one-page form, in which you tell Dodgeball your name, email address, home city, and gender. You also need to tell the company about your cell phone (phone number, service provider, where you want to receive messages, and whether Dodgeball can send photos to your phone). As is typical, you then read and agree to the privacy policy and terms of service (which have changed since Google’s purchase of the company), submit the form, and you’re done.

From Dodgeball’s point of view, this could be the best thing that ever happened to the company. To quote from Dennis Crowley’s FAQ about the deal, “Now that we’re part of Google, we’ll have more resources available to us. That means Alex and I can get back to building new features. We have a lot of ideas that we’ve wanted to work with for a long time and we’re excited that we will now have the time and resources to actually follow-through with them. There’s some cool stuff in the works –- stay tuned.”

Google gained quite a bit from the deal as well. Anyone watching the search engine giant lately has seen the company working to expand its reach beyond simple Internet search. Google does desktop search, provides maps (both normal and satellite maps) and directions to places, and even lets users perform searches on their cell phones. Dodgeball’s service should fit in well with Google’s mobile phone search offering.

This isn’t Google’s first foray into interactive or social networking services, incidentally. Google’s users can benefit from email applications, photo management and blogging tools. Google is also affiliated with at least one service that is somewhat similar to Dodgeball. Orkut, started by a Google employee, allows friends to connect through an online community. It is currently an invitation-only service; a friend who is a member has to invite you in order for you to be able to join. Another big difference between orkut and Dodgeball is that orkut’s focus is on Web interaction; Dodgeball encourages offline, “real-life” interaction.

Specific details about the agreement, including financial information, were not disclosed. The press release section of Google’s website, as of this writing, did not even include a release about the purchase. It is clear, however, that Crowley and Rainert will stay with the company, and continue ro actively guide it in the directions they want to see it grow. In Crowley’s words, Google “got” what Dodgeball is doing, unlike the many angel investors and venture capitalists that the two partners consulted for financial backing. “The people at Google think like us. They looked at us in a `You’re two guys doing some pretty cool stuff, why not let us help you and let’s see what you can do with it’ type of way. We liked that. Plus, Alex and I are both Google superfans and the people we’ve met so far are smart, cool, and excited about what they’re working on.”

One obvious combination of Dodgeball’s service with Google’s offerings would send a map or directions along with the alerts about friends’ locations. This could also be helpful when trying to arrange an impromptu gathering, whether it’s a trip to the movies or a dinner get-together. Or how about this scenario? You’re eating at a new restaurant, and you want to invite a specific friend to join you. Dodgeball sends the invite to your friend, and includes a discount coupon for the restaurant that both of you can use that very evening.

Google has some mobile services in its Google Labs section that might combine in interesting ways with Dodgeball’s service, especially if a social networking service such as orkut is also involved. For instance, one beta service, dubbed Froogle Wireless, lets users search for products from their cell phone. The service’s description gives the example of shopping for a digital camera. If you’re in the electronics store and do a Froogle search on the camera you’re thinking about buying, you may be able to find it for a lower price.

Now let’s imagine this scenario with orkut and Dodgeball services added. You’re shopping for a digital camera at the local mall, and you perform a search on the model you’re considering. It slipped your mind that your friend Bob is into digital photography –- but because he added this information to his user profile, Google knows. After you perform the search, you get a text alert that says something along the lines of “It looks like you’re shopping for a digital camera. Your friend Bob is into digital photography. Would you like to ask his advice?” If you click yes, you are connected with Bob, who may be able to tell you anything from what to look for in a digital camera to whether the one you’re considering is really worth the price.

While this kind of networking and connectedness can be a blessing at some times, it can also be a curse. Dodgeball already offers certain features that mitigate this issue –- for example, you can turn the messaging feature “off” when you’re no longer out on the town, or when you’re traveling. You can also “manage” certain people so that they don’t see your text messages, and you don’t see theirs. It seems likely that Crowley and Rainert will continue to fine tune this part of the service, and make it easier to manage.

I can think of at least two possible concerns about this purchase. One is that it could potentially be used for stalking people, especially with the expanded capabilities available from Google (such as maps). However, as mentioned above, Dodgeball itself has taken steps to try to prevent this from happening. Remember, too, that with Dodgeball’s service, no one knows where you are unless you check in –- and even then, you can fine tune who knows where you are to a certain degree.

The other issue involves the addition of advertising. While the service does not include advertising yet, if it is ever added, it needs to be done in a way that is not annoying or intrusive. Dodgeball already experimented with advertising of a sort at least once. In June 2004, vodka maker Absolut used the Dodgeball service to send this message to subscribers: “What a gorgeous day! Reply with @venuename telling us where u are. Dodgeball & Absolut will send the closest outdoor patio.” Users who followed up on the message were told the location of the closest place where they could enjoy drinks outdoors.

To me, the most interesting aspect of this deal is that Google is finding more and more ways to make itself a part of its users’ lives –- almost a companion. From helping users find particular information to helping them find friends or a good time, Google has managed to stretch the idea of “searching everything” a very long way indeed.

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