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The Empire Strikes Back

Looks as though the first and second most popular sites in America are trying to beat back the third and fifth ranked sites. If they're going to succeed, this is the plan to do it.

At least for now and the foreseeable future, people are comfortable communicating textually. Email is the most universally accepted online function. Text messaging remains the largest growth area in mobile phones. Both are widely accepted in business and social situations, and both are technologically appealing, because they don't demand a lot of memory or bandwidth.

Add in the vast repositories of personal data both Yahoo and Google have collected from their registered email users and you've got the foundations for an active digital social network. Plus, from their perspective, it's not an all-or-nothing game. MySpace and Facebook users will likely also use Google's and/or Yahoo's social functions, simply because they're available and attached to their email. MySpace and Facebook, however, do not yet have a native email component, so first-time social site users who start on Google or Yahoo are not likely to migrate to MySpace or Facebook.

If I had to place a bet on this fight, I'd put my money on Google. Not because they're the biggest and baddest right now, but because their stripped-down interfaces make them more conducive to textual communication and more portable to mobile devices. Yahoo's latest email redesign is an interactive disaster that takes far longer to get used to than most people have the patience for—and as limited as people's patience is for digital devices in general, it's even less for email. Also, Yahoo mail runs a lot slower than Google's, especially on older computers.

Favoring Yahoo is a general opt-in consumer approach. Yahoo tends to build tools that their users can either choose to use and integrate or not. Google tends to produce ready-made services that the user must discover how to opt out of. And that's Yahoo's wild card, because as we all know, people want to participate and they want to at least think they're in control.

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