After numerous failed attempts at social networking, Google revealed their latest endeavour Google+ (pronounced ‘Google Plus’) last week. It was launched as an invite-only ‘field-trial’, and I was lucky enough to get an invite from a friend on the very first day!
I would like to share the strengths and weaknesses of Google+ based on my experiences during the past week. Keep in mind that it is still not available for the public and is at its very early stages. Please feel free to post about anything you personally liked/disliked about Google+ in the comments below.
- Circles: Circles in Google+ represent different social circles in your real life. For example, High-school friends, Work mates, Family can be different social groups in your life. When you add someone to your Google+ network, you can put them in one or more Circles. The power of Circles lie in the ability to easily share things selectively. When you share anything on Google+ you can specify which circles can see/interact with that post. Unlike Facebook, where everything is visible to your entire ‘Friends’ list by default, or Twitter where it is always public, Circles allows Google+ to strike a nice-balance in deciding who can view what! This way you can easily share different things with different people; e.g. your co-workers, friends and family etc.
- Hangout: Hangout is a video chatting feature that allows you to participate in video conferences with one or more people (or an entire Circle). I tested it with a single person and it works like a charm! No need to fire up a separate application (Skype in my case) to video chat with your friends! It was buttery smooth and just worked without me having to configure anything, except for a one-time install of a browser plug-in. You can have group video chats with up to 10 people at a time and even share links or youtube videos with the group! I can already see applicability of this feature in work environments where you need to talk to multiple people in real-time (e.g. when having discussions with your team remotely)
- Sparks: This is similar to a RSS reader and allows you to subscribe to topics of your interests (e.g. News, Finance etc). There are a bunch of pre-configured topics or you can create your own. I suspect it is tied to Google Search and News where applicable.
- A great mobile application: Although only available in Android, the Google+ mobile application is top-notch. It is very simple to use and just works unlike the Facebook app for Android! Some of the standout features include:
- Instant Upload to automatically backup your photos and videos from your phone. You can configure it to specify either to do it at all times, or do it over only a 3G or WiFi network.
- Fine grain control over who to share with when making a post. Unlike the Facebook mobile app, which always share your posts with everyone in your Friends list, Google+ mobile app allows you to share posts with only specific people or Circles; just like how it works on the web!
- Advanced filtering of streams: You can easily filter incoming streams (“news feeds” in Facebook lingo) so you can view streams from a specific Circle or even based on your current location! I found this a very handy feature to filter out unwanted noise and keep up to date on what really interests you!
- Great and easy to use privacy controls: Unlike Facebook, where all the privacy settings are hidden behind a multi-level maze of sub menus, you can control who views what and whether others can share/comment what you share on a per-post basis. This can be done using either Circles or specifying individual persons. The same holds true for different parts of your Google+ profile. When editing your profile, you can click on each item and specify who can see that piece of information without having to go to some obscure privacy settings menu.
- Multi-purpose social network: Google+’s Circles can be leveraged to not only keep in touch with your friends and family, but also with people you don’t know personally but interested in following what you have to say (i.e. Twitter style). You can add these ‘followers’ to a Circle that you only post public/twitter-like comments. People are already suggesting ways of leverage this to promote personal portfolios and collaborating in educational environments. Because you can use Google+ in many different ways through a single social network, you can effectively use it as a Twitter+Facebook replacement.
- Great for letting anyone “Follow” you: Extending the previous point, we can leverage Google+ Circles and “befriending” mechanism to follow anyone who we are interested in. For example, I can follow my favourite bloggers simply by adding them to my Circle. That doesn’t mean I can see their non-public posts or Circle-specific posts. However, it allows me to more easily follow their public posts (similar to Twitter) or posts aimed at their ‘followers’ (if they added me to their ‘followers’ group)
- Huddle: This is a convenient way of doing group chats from your mobile phone with people in your Google+ circles. You no longer need a separate app for group messaging if majority of your friends are on Google+!
… moving on to the features that I would have preferred to have, but not necessarily stopping me from using Google+. I expect most of them to be solved before it goes public.
- Huddle is currently available only on mobile. There is chat available in the web interface, but that is essentially Google chat (which allows the recipient to chat with you from their Gmail account) and lacks the ability to do group chatting with everyone in a specific Circle.
- Lack of integration with YouTube: The videos you upload do not seem to appear on your YouTube account. It will be great if the two can be combined, so those videos appear private in YouTube, but visible to whatever circles that you have approved! The pictures I upload on Google+ appear as private albums on my Picasa account.
- Limitations in the mobile application:
- Can’t upload videos from your phone
- Can’t add new photo albums. I could only add photos as a post, which ended up going to an album called ‘Photos from Post’. You can organise these by logging into Picasa, but that is a convoluted process.
- No Hangout in the mobile app. Considering Google enabled video chat in Google Chat in Gingerbread 2.3.4 (their latest Android OS at the time of writing) it is not a surprise this is left out. Hopefully this will make it into future versions.
- The photo uploads are limited to 2048 x 2048. If you upload a photo bigger than that, it will be automatically compressed while preserving the original aspect ratio. This is OK for viewing on the phone or just for sharing, but a far cry from using it as a backup for your photos. I know that uploading photos to Google+ doesn’t use up your Picasa storage limit; but it would be nice to get the choice to preserve the photo quality by keeping the original photo size.
Now to the stuff that will make a person think twice about joining and using Google+ in its current form.
- Anyone can add you to their Circle without your explicit permission. Good news is that they will only be able to see your public posts and won’t be part of your circle unless you explicitly add them to one. Oh, and you do get notified whenever someone adds you to their Circle, and you can always block them if you want to be removed from their circles. The downside is, some people prefer to have tighter control over who can add them. It would be nice if Google provides some setting to control whether it should behave similar to Facebook style ‘request’ where you first approve whether someone can add you to their Circle or the current behaviour where it is automatic. I think the reason why Google went down this path is to make Google+ attractive to users after a Twitter like experience, which enables quite a few benefits for bloggers and companies as I mentioned earlier in the last point under ‘The Good’.
- Lack of mobile applications on non-Android operating systems. There is an iOS version on the way (pending Apple approval of course!) but no news on native apps for other mobile platforms. Considering most of us use smartphones for social interactions it will be shooting on the foot if Google doesn’t bring out native apps on time for a public release!
- Can’t re-order photos in an album in Google+. There is a workaround by changing the ordering by logging into your Picasa, but you should be able to do it in the Albums view without having to go anywhere else!
- Lack of events: This was a surprise omission considering Google already has a top-class calendar web application! One of my main sore points about Facebook is that I can’t directly link the events to my calendar without having to go through a 3rd party app. If Google+ can do it – and I see why not considering it already integrates tightly with Picasa and Chat products – that will cause quite a few people to jump the ship from Facebook.
Where to from here?
Google+ is certainly a much better beta product compared to Wave or Buzz, but with few limitations and rough edges. The purpose of the limited trial is to find these out via user feedback and hopefully they will do a good job at making it a much smoother experience for non-early adaptors. Google has a lot of potential to make a compelling case for users to make Google+ their primacy social network by integration with their other products like calendar, latitude (specially for mobile) and documents. Imagine collaboratively working on a Google Doc/power point presentation while discussing about it face-to-face with your colleagues in Huddle? Imagine checking into a place from your Google+ app, that will then automatically tell you the daily deals near your place (through Google Offers) and friends near you (through latitude). How about leveraging Google Music to recommend you and your friends music based on what you share? I know there are few 3rd party apps that does some of it (at least in mobile space), but if you can get these done in one place then all the better!
Please feel free to share your experiences with Google+ in the comments! I am curious to know how you are using it, or planning to use it in future!
If you like to follow me, please feel free to add me to your Google+.