When Google announced Google+ just a few days ago, I was immediately skeptical about its success. Google has a history of failing in the social network arena. First there was Google Wave, then Google Buzz — and both flopped. Plus, Facebook’s immense user base means it is a huge challenge for Google+ to pose even a minor threat to the site. Luckily, I managed to get my hands on an invitation to join the service and make a proper judgment. I have been using it for about a day and I am ready to offer up some first impressions.
I am a design enthusiast myself, and therefore am a bit more critical with user interface and such in websites and applications. The first thing that came to mind when I launched Google+ was this could not possibly be designed by Google. It is actually very nicely designed. Everything is very accessible, yet the site remains clean and simple. Navigation for the stream, which includes the ability to filter activity by circles, and your added interests in Sparks are on the left. All the content is obviously front and center. Then to the right is a list of people in your circles, and the ability to start a Hangout. At the top, you can switch between the Home, Photos, Profile, and Circles views, as well as search for people.
Google+ really shines when it comes to all the little things added to make the experience just slightly more pleasant. For instance, the Notifications view is fantastic. Upon clicking a specific notification at the top right of the screen, instead of being brought to a new page like on Facebook, the post loads within the small area. And if you are tired of receiving alerts for a post that is continuously updating, you can mute it so it is not a bother. Another small thing I noticed is when in other Google services, a sharing option is present now to post content straight to Google+.
Circles and the Stream
I like the concept of circles. I especially like dragging and dropping people into these different groups. It makes organizing friends seem much less tedious. But circles go far beyond organization. Every time you share something in the stream — the equivalent to the Facebook news feed — you can choose exactly who you want to share your content with. Choose certain people, certain circles, all circles, extended circles, or the entire public. Extended circles mean everyone in your circles, plus all the people in their circles. Those who enjoy customization options will have a field day with this.
The stream, on the other hand, is very bare bones. Sharing choices are plentiful with statuses, photos, videos, links, and locations. But not very much is showing up in my stream. Really all I am seeing is status updates, photos, and hangouts (more on those later). Sparks just offer a way to keep up with your interests without leaving Google+. There is no way to write on a user’s profile, though if you post something to the stream and share it with individual people rather than circles, they will receive a notification for it.
Plus, for whatever reason, the stream does not show stories the way one might expect. Google+ orders them by recently updated. So if someone leaves a comment on a post from two days ago, that post moves to the top of the stream. I am not a fan of that at all, and I hope Google changes it soon. It is also worth noting that if you add someone to your circles, you are not automatically added into that person’s circles. It follows the strategy of Twitter instead of Facebook.
I will just go ahead and come out with it. Hangouts is the killer feature of Google+. In a nutshell, it just a group video conference, yet it feels like so much more than that. You can start a hangout by inviting certain people or circles, or just by posting it to your stream and letting up to ten users join in. There is one main view that features the person currently speaking, and the rest display in smaller thumbnails underneath. Clicking one locks that person into main video. A text chat is available on the left side as well.
I can see this taking off even further with celebrities. They can join Google+, post a hangout to their stream, and the lucky ten fans first to join get to have a live video chat with their idol. Some well-known people — albeit not exactly celebrities — started this last night. Vic Gundotra, the man behind Google+, started a hangout, as did Ben Parr of Mashable. I happened to snag a position in the hangout that Justine Ezarik started, better known as iJustine from YouTube. Overall, it is insanely fun. If anything is going to aid Google+ in taking off, it is hangouts.
Currently, Google+ has a native app in the Android Market while the iOS App Store is left hanging, though there is a web app. I spoke with former Skatter Tech writer Sharath Shroff to get some information on the mobile experience. The app seems snappy and stable, and includes all the main features of the desktop website except for sparks. Huddle is a group chat feature that mimics the functionality of BBM and iMessage and works well.
Instant Upload is a nice addition to the mobile app. Any photos or videos you take are automatically uploaded to Google+ in a private album, where you can then choose to share them. While photos have their own hub, there is oddly no gallery for videos. So if you upload a video and post it to the stream, chances are it will drift off into oblivion after a few days.
So, now that I have given my pros and cons of Google+, I have to say I am generally impressed. I joined with the assumption that it would just be another Wave, but I do not think that is the case this time. I think the real problem with Wave was that Google took way too long getting it out to the public, so people just lost interest. If they manage to time this correctly, Google+ has some serious potential. Right now, the vast majority of its users are technology pundits, UI designers, and plain enthusiasts.
As for Facebook, the website finally has some worthy competition. In no way is Google+ going to dominate in the social network wars any time soon, but in the future it could possibly give Facebook the fright it needs. Competition always drives innovation. So get ready, because this is only the beginning.
Links: My Google+ Profile