Search engine giant Google has just announced its Google+ social networking platform that's set to rival Facebook. Well, that's the plan anyway. Google doesn't have a particularly strong history when it comes to social networking services with both Google Wave and Google Buzz failing to catch on, but if the demo is anything to go by, it's investing a lot of time and money into making its latest venture a potential Facebook killer. Should Mark Zuckerberg and Co be worried? We took an in-depth look at Google+ to see what it brings to the table.
What is it?
Developed under the codename Emerald Sea, Google+ is basically Google's latest attempt at creating a social network. Google is cannily calling it a "project", rather than a "product" - perhaps to avoid comparison with its less successful social products. Google reckons that current online networks (no names mentioned) simply don't cut the mustard and that's why it's launching its own version. According to Google's official blog:
"Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online. Yet the subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools.
"In this basic, human way, online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it."
The idea is to topple Facebook from its throne by making every existing Google product socially compatible. The company certainly has a lot to work with, including Picasa, Gmail and Google Maps and information and functions from all of these will be integrated into the Google+ experience so that you don't have to sign into different services to share your photos and let your mates know what you're up to.
Each Google+ profile will centre around the Stream, which is essentially the same thing as Facebook's news feed - where all of your info and updates from your chums are rounded up and constantly updated. The Stream will be joined by four core elements - Circles, Hangouts, Huddle and Sparks - with Google hinting that these are the starting block for future developments.
Google wants to make sharing online more like sharing in real life - different things with different people. For example, you might want to catch up with your pals about your drunken Saturday night out, but you don't necessarily want your parents in your chat. You can keep your conversations separate by putting your contacts into 'circles' such as 'Work crew', 'Uni mates' and 'Parents'.
To put your nearest and dearest in neat little online compartments all you have to do is click and drag them into the relevant circle and then they'll only get the information that is meant for them. If only real life were that simple.
As the name suggests, this feature is all about hanging out with your buddies, virtually, or couse. You can choose specific friends, or circles, to invite for a face-to-face video chat and anyone in the Hangout can invite others to join as well. According to Google's demo: "Until teleportation arrives, it's the next best thing". We're not sure about that - it's basically just video calling.
The difference, it seems, is that you can include more than two people in each chat - something that not all video calling services currently offer.
You know when you're trying to arrange a night out by having several different text conversations with a number of friends? If so, you'll know how long-winded and confusing it can become. The idea behind Huddle is that you can turn all these exchanges into one big group chat to save you time.
This certainly has the potential to be a very useful addition to the Google+ mobile offering - we just hope that your friends are slightly more decisive about their plans than the tedious bunch of individuals on the demo page.
Tell Sparks what sort of stuff you're into and it'll send you things that you might be interested in that you can then watch, read or share. For example, you could type 'Films' into the seach box and see what comes up. If you like the results, then you can click the 'Add Interest' button to add Films to your list of important subjects.
If it works well, then it could be a invaluable service that means you've always got something cool to check out - if not, there's a danger that it could become a very annoying form of spam. You can delete interests from your list if they begin to bore you and we would expect that they'll be a few other ways of tweaking the settings, too.
Most social networks, Facebook included, have run into trouble over privacy concerns at some point or another, so what is Google+ doing to address it? You'll be able to alter your visibility settings so that only your name and photo will appear online to people that aren't in your network. However, if you're in a circle on a friend's public profile, then your picture will appear on there (but clicking on it wouldn't go anyway if your privacy settings are on). You'll be able to assign different levels of visibility to different aspects of your profile. You can also choose whether your profile is indexed by search engines and, as with Facebook, you'll be able to block people.
Google+ won't ever disclose the names of your circles (apparently, even to the people that are in them), although people in circles may be able to see some of the others members of the the circle that they're in - presumably depending on who posts any kind of feedback.
If you decide you don't like it, then you'll be able to downgrade your account, which will delete your
profile and remove any posts, circles and other Google+ content while still enabling access to Gmail and other Google services.
Backing up data
One of the biggest worries with uploading photos to Facebook is that one day the site will retire from public life, taking our cherished memories with it. Obviously canny computer users already make sure that anything they upload is backed up at home and likewise, Google+ has recognised that we don't all want to live exclusively in the clouds.
You can use Google Takeout (google.com/takeout) to download data from your Google+ products to your home computer - that includes PicasaWeb albums and photos, your Google profile, Google Contacts, Stream and er, Google Buzz.
Supported by the Chrome, IE, Firefox and Safari browsers, Google+ will also be available on mobile devices - a vital element for any social networking platform. As well as sharing your thoughts and location from your mobile, you'll be able to check into places and make use of the group messaging feature, Huddle.
Making photo-sharing as simple as possible, images and videos taken on your phone will upload themselves automatically to Google+. That might sound a tad scary - what if you don't want everyone to see your snaps or footage? Don't panic - they'll be uploaded directly to a private album and you can then specify who (if anyone) you choose to share them with.
You can already download the Android app and there's an iOS 4+ app due to hit iTunes soon. You can also access the basic Google+ mobile site (m.google.com/app/plus) on Android handsets (1.5+) and Apple devices (iOS 3+) as well as on BlackBerry (6.0+), Nokia/Symbian and Windows Mobile. The Android app currently offers a wider range of functions than you'll see on the mobile sites.
There are no tablet specific versions of the project at present, but this is something that Google plans to work on in the future.
When can I get it?
Google+ can currently only be accessed with a special Field Trial invitation, which Google has been sending out at random to Gmail users. There's no set date for a full launch, but we would guess that it won't be too long before Google+ goes live to everyone. In the meantime, you can check out the demo, as long as you have a Google ID.
Do I need it?
Overall, Google+ looks good and the new features, especially circles, could just make the difference between it being a Facebook killer or another Google social failure. But do we really need another social network and do we really need as much control of who we share what with as Google thinks? It may sound good on the surface but there might well be a certain amount of faff involved and degree of sharing awareness to be tightened up. It also raises concerns that if Google+ takes over as the social online hub of choice then we'll all be tied into using all of Google's products for evermore.
The web has already questioned why Google has chosen to soft launch a product that isn't entirely ready yet. With most online services launched in beta form prior to a full rollout, the answer seems blindingly obvious - so that it can fix bugs and iron out any kinks before the project goes global.
Getting people to shift over from Facebook is going to be a tough one. Early adoptors and tech fans may well want to try out the new project asap, but getting reluctant Facebook newbies to make the switch isn't going to be easy. The inevitably length transition period while users wait for their entire social groups to migrate from one service to another could be a step that the public just aren't willing to make; not when that already have a social platform that already works. We'll find out more when Google+ goes global.
Now read Google+: explored from the inside.