Yesterday Google began rolling out their social service Google+. While some lucky socialites were lucky enough to access immediately, most of us got invites and access today. So overwhelming were the invites sent out to friends, Google shut off the invite system this afternoon. If you didn’t manage to score one, just wait longer.
The service is still in beta, so as people take a breath, Google add some more servers, the invite system will likely return shortly. The real question is, is being on Google+1 just a cool thing for the tech hipsters, or is it actually a real threat to Facebook’s world dominance ?
After using Google+ today, the most interesting feature is its free, multi-person video calls. There are other services like Skype or ooVoo that offer this for a price, but currently Google+ is the only one that offers it for free. Hangouts are really the single most innovative feature. While drag and drop contacts to groups (or circles) makes for a unique UI, its not something new, its just different and pretty.
While participating in a Hangout, you’ll notice the primary video window switching to the the active speaker. As soon as someone speaks for a couple of seconds, the audio from that microphone source is detected, which is quickly followed by the video window. The creator of the Hangout can actually control the active speaker video by clicking on it. This prevents Google+ from auto-switching, simply click again and you hand back auto-pilot to Google code.
I’ve seen video calls of 10+ people, I’m sure there is a limit, but i haven’t reached it. You can chat or watch YouTube videos together, but like other features, that’s not anything new. Microsoft’s Windows Live Messenger has done that since last year. If you don’t have a fancy webcam, fear not, you can still join-in via audio only, unfortunately you don’t get a fancy profile picture, just the standard placeholder. Hopefully Google ads the ability to add a photo (from Picasa or others) as a custom still for audio-only participation.
One of the other great features of Google+ is its ability to share content. The typical status updates, photos, videos and links make sharing on Google+ very similar to other social networks like Facebook, box checked. What is intelligent about Google+ is its ability to display pictures from your circles in a grid (shown below), as well as photos from your Android phone, or Picasa Web. Naturally the Google services tie-in here is strong, but they do say an iPhone app is in the works, assuming Apple allow it.
Adding new friends is easy (when invites are working) and its probably best to add contacts to circles (groups) on the way in. Unfortunately there is no understanding of any prior groups you may have setup in email, Facebook groups, twitter lists or the like. So here in lies the problem with Google.. we’re starting from scratch.
Years of grooming and refining of our contact list on Facebook counts for nothing in the Googleverse. You’ll also need a Google account to play and while it may be common place amongst your techie friends, the reality is the number of people with Google ID’s is small in comparison to Facebook. Sure its easy to sign up for one, but it means yet another set of credentials to remember.
That fancy black Google bar along the top of any Google service isn’t just for looks, it also serves to provide you with notifications from Google+. I’ll give you the hot tip, go to settings and disable email notifications, especially if your thinking about commenting on a Robert Scoble post. Notification emails for everything are enabled by default.
Competition is almost always a good thing, in this instance, the best outcome I see is for multi-person video chat to now become free and integrated by Facebook and possibly Microsoft. Starting from scratch is seriously not fun in a social network and there’s also no sharing capability out to Facebook or Twitter. Effectively Google+ is a silo right now, hopefully that changes over time, but given Facebook’s persistence to own their data, I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Google+ design wise is without a doubt their best attempt at creating something that appeals to mainstream consumers, with most of their interfaces being very engineered. If you haven’t already, try deleting a circle for a fun animation.
Inevitably only time will tell how successful Google+ will be, but two things are critical. User adoption and feature iterations.