First, allow me briefly to gloat over the failure of News Corp’s BSkyB takeover, and highlight unsubtly exactly what they have lost (be sure to check the source code). For all my cynicism — and while I lent my support to the 38 Degrees campaign, I did not believe success was likely — clearly there are times when democracy works.
I’ve spent a couple of days exploring Google’s latest venture into the social networking space with Google+ and that’s enough to share some preliminary impressions. The universal first impression seems to be its stark cleanliness, coupled with a sense of emptiness because the invite-only system means the majority of your friends are yet to arrive. I described it as being like your first visit to Singapore; perhaps a better description, via Tom E from whom I obtained my invitation, was: “You know when you re-install windows and it’s all clean and fresh and empty? That’s what Google+ feels like.” It is easy to underplay the importance of a clean UI, but let us not forget that the fall of MySpace and the mass exodus to Facebook was in no small part due to the increasingly cluttered UI of the former in comparison to the latter’s (then) minimalism.
Google+ is a much more successful, and arguably more mature, implementation than their previous attempts with Wave and Buzz. Unlike these endeavours Google is neither trying to reinvent the wheel nor merely replicate a service found elsewhere. This is a direct, brazen even, competitor to Facebook but one that pares the social experience down to its essence of dialogue and sharing content, but also brings some new ideas to the social party. The clearest is the use of “circles” to organise your contacts. Rather than treating everyone equally, Google+ aims to replicate the way real world friendship groups operate by allowing you to create a range of different “circles” and every piece of content you share can be made available only to specific circles. That simple solution bridges the divide many keep between their “friends only” Facebook profile and “work only” LinkedIn account. It was a key issue I hoped Diaspora would address, and now with Google to compete with those kids have their work cut out.
Realtime communication is far superior, incorporating Gchat instant messaging, which has always been superior to Facebook chat, not least through its automatic creation of searchable chat logs. Videochat, however, has the potential to draw in a far larger audience. Choosing to “hang out” allows you to create a video chatroom with one or several friends. Straight from the browser (after installing a plugin) it is convenient but hardly earth-shattering. The inclusion of YouTube integration, however, is a major departure. Clicking the buttons launches a shared YouTube window which streams to all participants, muting their microphones in favour of a push-to-talk system to avoid unnecessary distraction. I can certainly see this becoming a feature I regularly use — something as seemingly inconsequential as watching a friend’s reaction while showing them a video remotely is not to be underestimated.
Cross-platform integration in general is Google’s strength, being able to share directly from its search engine or share pictures through the advanced Picasa service. Further integration is undoubtedly on the cards, such as Google’s calendar service since a robust event organising infrastructure is notably missing at present. I have yet to experience the Google Docs integration but one certainly suspects there are elements of the abandoned Google Wave code at work beneath the surface of Google+. One assumes notifications will eventually be available while in every Google service and crucially the drop down allows you to see a great deal of info, including viewing posts and leaving comments, without navigating away from the current page.
I am happy to provide Google+ invites to those who want them: simply provide me with an email address. For those already using it, IGN have some useful tips.