Bob Caswell is a product manager at Microsoft, who works on digital content for Microsoft Learning. He posted some interesting comments on Google+ today about how he (and another student) had the idea for Circles three years ago, but didn't pursue it.
Don't worry, this isn't a Winklevoss-like story. He's not claiming any rights to Google's new product or anything like that (wouldn't that only add fun to the Google vs. Microsoft saga?). He just talks about a project he worked on as a student called iPrivacyManager or "iPM," which was apparently similar in concept to Google Circles.
Here are the first two paragraphs of the original business plan, as he posts it:
"iPrivacyManager (iPM) is an intelligent Internet application that allows online users the ability to manage how their information (profiles, pictures, etc.) is shared on social networking sites (e.g. MySpace, Facebook). iPM is based on patented technology invented at Purdue University by PhD student Arjmand Samuel and professor Arif Ghafoor. This technology allows users a simple but powerful approach to managing subsets of friends, conditions of access, and specific rules for sharing of personal information."
"iPM easily integrates with the existing information store of an online user profile (via the open standard XML) and uses a unique, graphically interactive way for the user to define criteria (also known as “context-aware disclosure rules”) that dictate who can see what under what environmental conditions."
Another part said:
"Currently, user profiles posted on Facebook and other sites are potentially accessible in an identical way by a wide range of acquaintances, who are typically kept separate in real life (employers, coworkers, fellow students/alumni, friends, family, and relatives)."
There's no mention of "circles" as far as I can tell, but yes, the privacy-based sharing stuff sounds vaguely similar, although I'm guessing there have been others with similar ideas. Notice the mention of "real life".
Paul Adams, who is credited as one of the idea men behind the Google Circles (who has since moved on to ad work at Facebook) has been talking about his experience with Google, and how Google is blocking him from publishing his book on the subject. Here is his presentation on the concept from a year ago:
In an update to his post, Caswell wrote:
For me, this is the story of entrepreneurship often untold. You have to give up a lot for the hopes of a nice pay off, and the odds are against you. But what happens when you go with a decision where the odds are in your favor?
I’m cautious by nature, so also being entrepreneurial is a bit of a paradox. But I have no regrets on this. I think being cautious worked out well for me, actually. That said, if you choose the cautious route, be prepared for someone else to do exactly what you were planning (in my case, Google!).
It is nice to see, at least, that this isn't one of those tales of someone trying to get money for an idea that they didn't pursue to a great enough extent. One can only envision Google+ lead Vic Gundotra saying in The Social Network-like fashion: "If you were the inventor of Cirlces, you'd have invented Circles."