Google has been widely criticized for its inability to create a social media platform that didn't either play a distant second fiddle to Facebook or violate user privacy in some way that makes PR and marketing types break out in a cold sweat. At the same time, though, Google's core services (search, Gmail, and Docs) get better and better. The introduction of the new Gmail People Widget applies some of the most useful principles of social media and leverages Google's expertise in search to improve on this core service rather than trying to co-opt Facebook and Twitter.
According to Google's Gmail blog,
The people widget surfaces content from friends, family and colleagues that is already available to you but may be hard to find and makes it easier to connect with them...Next to every email message you can now see contextual information about the people in that conversation including recent emails you received from them, relevant Buzz posts, shared documents and calendar events. You also have quick access to a variety of ways to communicate with individuals, start a group chat or schedule a meeting with groups of people.
This hasn't received an extraordinary amount of media attention yet, but it actually provides a significant incentive for people to adopt Google Apps, where this sort of contextual information is particularly helpful in fostering the collaboration that makes Google Apps so appealing.
One of the more useful add-ons I've found for my email is a service called Rapportive which provides information about email contacts from various social feeds right inline with your email. Gmail's People Widget takes that approach but localizes it to work and conversations with your contacts.
If Google can stick with layering useful social tools onto their Apps and search, they might just beat Facebook at its own game, at least within social business, instead of building new tools that people neither like nor trust. I'm not saying Google should stop making innovative tools, but they already have a very powerful toolset for enterprises and individual users; improvement and innovation within those tools can yield far more interesting results than their other social forays have to date.