[Update: 28th Dec] Link updated as the author has moved the post.

Google has been in the news over the past couple of days, introducing a feature that has upset a few people by opening up their ‘shared’ news items to everyone in their contacts list (as opposed to them notifying selected users to view their shared items). Check out the following link for a quick overview (bit of an extreme and inaccurate title, but hey ho) – Google Reader shares private data, ruins Christmas. One of the comments highlighted within the post is interesting from a different perspective:

¨Please fix this and let us OPT IN to who we want to share with… Don’t make me leave my Google apps¨

If you are using Google services, you get the same set of applications regardless of whether its for personal or business use. Chances are, you will use those applications in different ways depending on context. But it easy to forget what context you are in when everything looks the same. This has happened before…

Back in the early 90s, I was a local area networking (LAN) newbie, starting out with Novell NetWare 2.2. At the time, my lucky users had Windows 3.1 on their desktops. (If you remember GPFs, you’ll know just how lucky they were.) The network server sat in the office and nobody ever dared touch it. It was different. Physically, it looked the same (because it was, from a hardware perspective – aside from a whopping double the RAM at 8Mb). But the monitor displayed gobbledygook that looked nothing like the software on their desktop PCs.

After a couple of years, a mandate from above and beyond (ours was a small satellite office, HQ was in a land far far away) resulted in a network migration to Windows NT. When I first started to learn about NT, I hated it. For one simple reason. It looked just like Windows on the desktop. I could no longer risk leaving the server in the office. If someone was stuck with a GPF on their own computer, they might go and try using the network server, not realising it wasn’t just another desktop PC. If there was a problem with the network and I wasn’t around, the more ambitious users would have a go at fixing it. It looked similar to their desktop PC – the icons looked familiar – and they often figured the same trick of doing a reboot ought to sort it out… Thank goodness nobody had mobile phones back then, I could carry on at college blissfully unaware and sort out the mess the next morning. When the Finance Dept had enough of not being able to access accounts because somebody had crashed the network again, we converted a kitchen area over the weekend and, from that day forward, servers have been kept locked up in server rooms.

The Google-gate that has occurred over Christmas (and ditto for Beacon-gate that Facebook caused earlier this month) is history repeating itself. The challenge this time around is that business is being mixed with pleasure, providing plenty of opportunities for trouble and strife.

Google introduced a new feature to its Google Reader service – connecting Google Reader with Gmail. Anybody who had chosen to share items in Google Reader discovered that the items were now being shared with everyone in their Gmail contacts list. People have been upset because their Gmail contacts list contains a mix of contacts – friends, family, business, occasional communications etc. They are the same, but different. People didn’t consider ‘share’ to mean ‘share with everyone’.

Any software company that produces tools to be used in different contexts needs to be sensitive to the differences. And we. as users of those tools, need to be equally sensitive to the similarities. When you decide to ‘share’ something, it is no longer private. Yes, you ought to be able to opt in/out of new features when they are introduced. But web-based services make beta testers out of us all. Like it or not, you can’t choose to wait for service pack 3 to avoid unexpected outcomes. And if you use the same tool for both business and pleasure, be prepared for the two to mix…

*GPF = General Protection Fault, a regular occurrence in Windows 3.1 that would freeze the machine (this was back when there was no multi-tasking – if your computer was printing, you couldn’t even play Solitaire whilst you waited)

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