Unless you've been living under a rock, you know by now that Google is launching yet another social network, called Google+. It's in a private, invitation-based beta test mode, and I managed to get one from Steph Romanski before the invitations were halted due to "overwhelming" demand. Here's a peek inside and a taste of what's coming from Google.
Is Google crazy? No. Facebook looks like an impregnable fortress, but so did Myspace not too long ago. Brands are volatile these days. And Google has some big artillery to fire. Millions of registered users of Gmail, Picasa, and Google Docs. It owns Android, the #1 mobile platform. And Chrome, the browser that's the new hotness. Google has done a terrible job of tying these assets together -- until now.
As part of the G+ beta launch, Google rolled out subtle design changes across its landscape. Take a look at my logged-in Chrome browser. Above my custom background (Chistye Prudy, Moscow) is a clean new warm-gray nav bar. Note the "+Steve" link on the left (G+) and the red notification signal on the right.
This puts G+ front and center for Google users who log in. The nav bar carries over across all the core Google products. Although the links shift around depending on context, G+ is never more than a click away. The navbar is executed with a sense of typography and visual style that's head and shoulders above the clunky Google of the past. This is part of a general attention to fit and finish that extends across G+, and hopefully the rest of Google over time.
When you click on G+, you go straight to your "Stream" page, whose layout and purpose is generally similar to Facebook's News Feed. The items currently are sorted primarily by recent comments, an algorithm Google is tuning after testers complained.
On the left rail there are links to "Circles" which are basically lists of your peeps. This is Google's major advance in social networking, an attempt to better reflect real-world social connections. You can create circles and sort people into any that make sense (even more than one group).
Organizing people in groups is a simple drag-and-drop operation.
Circles act as filters for viewing the stream, but also for posting. You can restrict a post to any combination of groups, or down to a single user (the equivalent of private messaging), or even a mix of users and groups. This is privacy control done right.
Existing Google services such as Google Talk (chat), Buzz (Twitter-like stream), and Profiles are being integrated into G+. Probably the best is Picasaweb, the photo-sharing companion to the Picasa photo application. If you install the very good Android app, all your mobile photos can be automatically pushed to a private Picasaweb folder for easy, highly controllable sharing inside and outside of G+.
One of the new twists in G+ is "Sparks," a subscribable feed of topics-based news items that serve as conversation starters, with clear "share" links. This is one component that news organizations need to monitor: How well are you performing there? The links appear to come from the Google News engine, but I have not seen confirmation of that.
Now for what I think is potentially the killer app: Hangouts. Pretty much every laptop comes with a webcam these days. You can share your video stream with individuals or circles, allowing others to join in group video chats. Supposedly you can even do a group video chat watching YouTube. Mystery Science Theater 3000, here we come.
"Check your hair" works better if you have some, I suppose.
All of this adds up to a "better Facebook," but not a "better Twitter." As a fast and furious chatty newsfeed, it fails. Twitter's enforced brevity, linear nature, and third-party app support is better for that.
Speaking of third-party apps -- there aren't any. This isn't public yet and there is not yet an API for developers to use. This means G+ is mercifully free of annoying Farmville and the legions of credential-stealing scam applications that infest Facebook. We'll see how that changes when Google unveils the API it's working on. Google has done a poor job of policing the Android market, so it's something to worry about.
Does all of this add up to a win for Google? It's hard to say. Facebook has a huge user base, and any other potential competitor would be hard-pressed to persuade people to switch. But this is Google -- and Gmail -- and YouTube -- and Blogger-- and Google Voice. Proper, usable integration of great stand-alone experiences has been Google's biggest failure to date. G+ signals a major and welcome change in that area. This is definitely Google with a plus.