Yesterday Google announced a gradual, invite-only roll-out of its new social initiative, the Google+ project. I admit that while I have requested an invite, I haven’t yet received one, so what I say here is based on what I’ve read from Google and in posts by some folks who have the chance to test drive Google+. It is, at its core, a collection of new Google services that together aim to better approximate the nature of real-life social interactions.
There have been rumors about Google’s “Facebook killer” for a long time. For example, Gizmodo used that very phrase in a post they ran exactly a year ago today. While plenty of news outlets are still tossing the phrase around, a look at the components parts of Google+ reveals that Google’s ambitions for the project include much more than increased competition with Facebook or Twitter. In fact, Vic Gundotra, Senior Vice President of Engineering at Google, told Wired that Google+ is not intended as a Facebook killer (although the main interface does look a bit like Mark Zuckerberg’s creation). They appear less focused on killing the competition than they do on redeeming their past social failures (Buzz and Wave, especially).
But the idea that Google+ is a social network at all seems a little flawed. Instead, it’s a group of services built on top of you existing real-life social networks. I don’t mean on top of your Facebook or LinkedIn account, but on top of your contacts themselves. Where Facebook’s goal is (in my opinion) to be your social graph, Google+ wants to augment it, instead. It’s true, some people may find that Google+ replaces the core uses of Facebook for them. However, the overwhelming majority of people who try Google+ won’t shut down their Facebook accounts. I suspect there will be a lot of back and forth (what “gurus” call “cross-pollination” or, even worse “synergy”) between Google+ and social networks some people claim it is meant to kill.
The new services launched as part of Google+ mimic many of those found in social networks, but they all display Google’s unique touch. There’s Circles, which appears to take Facebook’s Lists feature as a conceptual starting point. It uses a graphical drag-and-drop method allowing you to separate your friends, populated from Gmail or Google Contacts, into different groups. Circles looks like a much easier feature to set up and use than Facebook Lists, and it will likely be a fundamental driving force behind using the Google+ suite of services.
Sparks is a way for Google to curate information on the web based on the topics you love. You feed Sparks some topics and it starts finding related content it thinks you’ll like. From there, you can share the content with individuals or entire Circles. This appears to replace some of what Google Buzz and, before that, Google Reader, have been trying to do with their social functionality. Sparks looks polished and ready for prime time in ways those other two services just don’t.
Hangouts is a video chat service that focuses, again, on Circles (see a pattern here?). As members of a Circle join the Hangout, they appear as a tiny video window under the main video feed of the person who initiates the Hangout. As different people start speaking, Google intelligently places the current talking head in the main video window. This looks really well-done in the video Google posted about it and it makes me reluctant ever to double-click the Skype icon on my laptop again. Why deal with Skype’s clunky interface and (admittedly cheap, but still for-a-price) group video chat?
Hangouts lets you be available to users in a particular Circle and automatically manages attention and focus. Skype may still have a place in enterprise markets, especially since Microsoft picked them up for a cool $8.5 billion. Average users and smaller businesses may at least give Hangouts a try as a solid remote-meeting replacement in the short term. And when video is unavailable or unnecessary, Huddle (video) will use Circles, instant messaging and SMS to bring a robust group chat functionality to Google.
Google+ has an Android app in the Market already and an iOS version on the way, and it looks like both will support real-time photo uploads (you can share photos with specific Circles later). But Google has also used HTML5 to bring some Google+ features to the mobile web. You can create Circles and share stuff with them on go, as well as moderate comments and posts. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if they brought more features to the mobile web version of Google+ as time goes on.
While innovation and competition are always exciting, the best part about Google+ is the design. The primary engineering purpose of Google+ is using Circles to make communication and sharing as private or public as we want on a per-post, per-chat or per-photo basis. The graphical user interface design, headed up by a former Apple-er, achieves that engineering result with elegance (very unusual for Google). It’s part of a broader design refresh and plays well into Google’s attempt to shake its reputation as a company where design sometimes takes a backseat to engineering.
I hope I get an invite soon to try out Google+ for myself (hint: my email address is in the bio box below this post…), in which case I’ll post a short review about my experience with it. In the meantime, if you have an invite already and want to share your thoughts about Google+, leave a comment letting us know what you think about it.