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The Lowdown: Google+

I think there’s been hints of this for a while. The +1 button appearing on certain sites, Google Buzz testing the murky and hostile waters of social networking, then a mysterious black ‘marker line’ appearing across the top of the search giant’s sites… now Google is back in this game, and it certainly means business, targeting social giant Facebook with its just-announced Google+ service.

The Google+ Flash Tour

So what’s the deal here?

Essentially Google’s new ‘Facebook killer’ (yes, another one of those) can be summed up by 5 key elements: Hangouts, Sparks, Instant Upload, Huddle and Circles. But before we get into what these are, we need to answer the important question of:

What the devil is Google+, anyway?

In short, and because I’m a huge xkcd fan, the Google+ service can be summed up by this comic:

xkcd's Google+ Comic

It essentially is a new take on Facebook. It has the familiar ‘news feed’, you add your friends, you can post items to the feed. However, it seems to have a much bigger emphasis on content sharing than Facebook’s status update-centric system. Photos, videos and the like are rendered in-line in a much larger size than Facebook, delivering rich content at the quickest of glances at your news stream.

The Google+ News Feed

But since everyone and their mums know how Facebook works, let’s skip ahead to the new features.

Hangouts

Let’s start this feature list off with a bang: Hangouts are easily my favourite feature of Google+.

The design paradigm of Hangouts is basically this: IM, VoIP and phone conversations are not a patch on real-life interaction and never will be, so Google have made Hangouts to be ‘the next best thing to a face-to-face meetup’. I don’t know about you, but I’m always logged into Skype, AIM and GTalk whenever I’m at my computer, but I’m not sitting there doing nothing, waiting for someone to send me a message or start a Skype call, and I’m far too lazy to set my status to ‘busy’ or the like. And that’s even assuming that people will take notice of that… which they won’t.

Hangouts gets round this whole problem by making being available for VoIP an opt-in process, rather than opt-out. To start a Hangout, simply flick a switch to set yourself as ‘hanging out’. You’ll be placed in what’s essentially a lobby, your webcam and mic will be activated, and your friends’ news feeds will receive a “yourname is hanging out” post. And they just hit a button to join you. If anything is easier than pie, this is it.

Hangouts in Google+

When somebody joins, you’re placed in a video chat room that will hold up to ten people and pretty much left to it. You have an IM chat sidebar, presumably mostly for the purpose of posting links and the like, and you’re given access to the whole of YouTube to watch communally. Think of it as an iChat group conversation mixed in with SynchTube, throw in some Google Voice Search for fun, and you’re almost there. The way I see it, this is literally the closest possible virtual experience to huddling around a laptop with your friends watching videos of cats doing stupid things. At least until someone invents a teleporter.

Sparks

If we’re using analogies of what current services these features are similar to, then Sparks is a mixture of RSS and Twitter’s Saved Searches. Enter a topic you’re interested in, and Sparks will generate a news feed of interesting posts related to that topic for you. So say you want to keep up on all the latest news of Game of Thrones. Just go to Sparks, enter “Game of Thrones” into the Search box, and then hit save. Game of Thrones will be added to your sidebar, and you can click it at any time to get the latest G+ posts on the show.

Sparks - Google's new take on RSS

As an aside, Sparks relates really closely to another new Google service, ‘What do you love?‘ – and I wouldn’t be surprised if the search algorithms for the two are the same.

Instant Upload & Huddle

These two can largely be lumped together, as they’re both mobile services. Instant Upload does pretty much what it says on the tin – take a photo from your Android phone and it’s instantly uploaded (see what they did there?) to Google+ to be shared amongst your friends. Simple stuff, but this is some nice integration. Huddle is basically WhatsApp, or BBM, or, well, group SMS messaging. It’s designed so that you don’t have to send messages to several friends to arrange something. I don’t know of anybody who doesn’t use group texts under these circumstances anyway, but again, the integration into the Android OS is real nice. I’ve joked before that Windows Phone 7 seems to be integrating Facebook pretty severely, and iOS 5′s Twitter integration is very tight, but all Android have is Buzz. With Google+, they’ve knocked my observation off its high horse; now Google has what looks to be a very capable social network to integrate into its mobile operating system, and the OS wars are shaping up to encompass the social networking wars too.

Circles

Facebook have taken a lot of flak for their lax privacy, and rightfully so. Google aren’t looking to make the same mistake, and so core to its entire system are Circles. These are essentially groups of friends that you create using an innovative drag and drop system, which really takes all the hassle out of group assignment, and whenever you post something you can choose which Circles to share it with. Anyone who’s not in your selected Circles will have no access to those posts. So no worries about sharing your drunken antics with your boss – as long as you don’t mistakenly send that video of your vomiting to your ‘work’ Circle, you’re good!

Overview

Google+ looks very, very promising, and incredibly intuitive too, in that it is essentially a Facebook ironed out, streamlined, prettified and given a couple of incredible new features. It’s also totally optimised and designed for mobiles (Android, obviously, has a G+ app in the Market, with one coming for iOS, and fully-optimised web experiences for other mobiles, which, compared to Facebook’s mobile experience… well, the least said about Facebook’s mobile experience the better), is built from the core to have actual privacy settings, and most importantly isn’t Facebook, so doesn’t come with all the attached stigma. Google have really pulled no punches with the feature-set and interface of the service. However, as with all social networks, if it doesn’t get the user-base it isn’t going anywhere. Google+ is going to have to start stealing users from Facebook in a big way, and to do that it’s going to have to be very good at convincing users to make the switch. However, its current invite-only, incremental rollout is going to be detrimental to getting as many users as possible while people still care. Otherwise, we’ve just got another Google Buzz on our hands. And we all remember how much fun hanging out on there alone was.

So the million-dollar question: will you switch to Google+? I know I’ll give it a shot, and I’d wager a lot of our readers have signed up for invites already, but I doubt people have room for both this and Facebook in their lives. Google’s challenge lies in convincing the average Facebooker to make the switch. Will they pull it off? I wouldn’t like to bet on their chances, but if any company has the stones to pull it off, it’s Google. I’ll be hanging out on Google+ if you need me, just as soon as my invite comes through. I’d love to see you guys on there.

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