Launching years after Facebook and Twitter, it's easy to look at Google as simply playing catch up in the social networking game with the release of its Google+ "field test." But look back in time and it's clear that Google has been playing in the social world for years, but never quite put all the pieces together in one place. Here's a chronological look at the long path Google has taken to form what could be the next big social network, if the company can pull off the mega-coup of convincing most of the half a billion Facebook users it has a better service.
2004 - Orkut: Google had a social network in place long before your Mom joined Facebook. Orkut was quietly launched more than seven years ago to compete with Friendster, and it's stayed quiet in the United States and most of the world, but has become the dominant social network in a few countries, most notably Brazil. Hilariously, it's still in beta.
2006 - Gchat in Gmail: It seems like a pretty minor thing now, but integrating GChat into Gmail was one of the first steps Google took towards making one of its core products more social.
2007 - OpenSocial: Rather than reinvent the social wheel, Google first tried to co-opt existing social networks like MySpace, LinkedIn, and Friendster via an open-source platform, but the initiative proved disappointing, initially working only with Orkut. It quickly faded away as Facebook's dominance grew.
2008 - FriendConnect: Google's next social strategy was a widget-based approach that allowed webmasters to add a "dash of social" to their sites. The number of sites using FriendConnect seems to be decreasing rapidly, with last count at more than 138,000 worldwide.
February, 2009 - Latitude: Adding a social component to Google's popular Maps seemed like an easy way to compete with FourSquare, although today it's become perhaps best-known as a self-stalking tool for those obsessed with keeping track of their own movements. While Latitude never caught up with FourSquare, I'll be shocked if its features don't become key components of Google+.
May, 2009 - Google Wave: If there's any reason to believe that Google+ might flop, it's Wave. Meant to be an everything application, Wave was supposed to revolutionize real-time collaboration while incorporating social networking, well ... kind of. It's actually a little hard to describe, and it turns out it was hard to use as well.
August, 2009 -- Social Gadgets for iGoogle: Google reprised the social widget concept first seen in FriendConnect with these small games and collaborative apps that could be added to users' personalized iGoogle homepages. I was surprised to find some of these gadgets still on my iGoogle page, which I haven't visited for well over a year now.
February, 2010 - Google Buzz: Google's answer to services like Digg and the epidemic of link-sharing on Facebook and Twitter never caught fire, but could get a second life on Google+.
February, 2010 - Aardvark: This social answers site had a small cult following long before Quora. Google purchased it and moved it to Google Labs, where it has languished, perhaps waiting to be folded into Google+?
October, 2010 - Social Search: This is Google's attempt to gather the valuable data from the social graph that Facebook has and Google so covets because it could be the next evolution of search. Many Google users have become used to these added search results by now, although I haven't found them too useful. This is another no-brainer for eventual integration into Google+.
August, 2010 - Slide: Google bought this social gaming company just under a year ago, and little else has been heard on the topic, but it's interesting to note that the company has such a division under its big tent as Plus rolls out.
July, 2011 - Google+: It's been a while since such a limited closed beta has generated so much excitement. Google+ has the potential to bring together all the lessons learned from the aforementioned social adventures, not to mention integration of Google's many other recognized properties, not the least of which are Picasa, YouTube and Android. Then again, it also has the potential to become just another entry in this very long list.