I've been using Google+ for less than a day. It is very much an early work in progress. But the service – a major new push into the social web, launched in a semi-public test phase this week by the search and advertising giant – is already ample proof that the social network and media worlds do not begin and end with Facebook.
What Google has understood, and put (with some glitches) into practice, is what Facebook has resisted. First, privacy has been baked into the service, not added as an afterthought. The privacy settings still need work, but it's clear that Google has learned from the mistakes it has made and the ongoing privacy insults that Facebook showers on its users.Second, Google appreciates the reality that we live in generally non-concentric groups such as family, close friends, colleagues, people with whom we do business, social acquaintances and more. And G+ makes it relatively easy to sort people into a group or groups where they most naturally fit.
Those choices are about the values Google is bringing to the social media table. They don't go as far as I'd like, but they are a serious improvement over what we've seen from the competition.
The service itself is already more useful to me, in key ways, than Facebook has ever been. The main reason is the easy ability to create different groups for people I follow and then read the feeds separately. For example, I've created a group – Google calls them "circles" – called "tech journos", where I'm following a number of my favourite technology reporters and commentators, including this media site's technology editor, Charles Arthur, who also is in my "colleagues" circle.No one but me can see the names of the circles I've created, nor which circles I've designated for individual people. (I'm considering a circle called "insufferable" for people I find personally annoying but whose work I feel obliged to keep track of, in any case.) The G+ interface, the clean and easy-to-use design of which was led by Andy Hertzfeld of early Apple fame, allows me to drag and drop people into the appropriate circle or circles – a highly useful feature.
I also decide which of my posts are public or restricted to people in my circles, or even just one circle. So if I want to post something for my family, and only my family, a couple of simple mouse clicks ensure that they are the only ones who'll see it. I can't overstate the value of this.
Google has been moving more and more toward what former CEO Eric Schmidt called a "mobile first" approach to its products and services, and G+ shows some of the results of that mandate. There's been near-universal agreement that the mobile apps, especially for Google's own Android operating system, are even now. terrific I'm still struggling to get the app working, for reasons too cumbersome to describe here, but even the mobile web version of G+, written in ever-more-powerful HTML5, works quite well on several devices, including my Android phone and tablet.Among the truly brilliant features of G+ is something called "hangout" – a video conferencing system that could be bad news for Skype. Users can pull groups together for a simultaneous video chat that is intuitive and, for me in one such call, solid in performance. I am already imagining how ideal this will be for workgroup teams. Hangout and "huddle" (group chat) don't work in the mobile web version, as far as I can tell.
By default, the feed of postings from people I follow – Google calls it a "stream" – is encrypted. Every online service offering any kind of communications should do this by default. I don't know if encryption extends to the video and text chats; if not, it should. Moreover, it should use industry-standard methods that have been vetted by security experts to assure that there are no backdoors for spies and snoops.
A less successful feature, at least so far, is called "sparks", which uses Google's search system to find news and other information about topics I find interesting. It seems to be using a blend of methods from Google's regular search, Google News and other services, but so far, I don't find the results compelling. I assume that Google will be incorporating suggestions from people I follow, creating a more social news experience, as well as connecting "sparks" to Google Reader, which is today a far better way of keeping up with topics I follow routinely.
There's a strong sense of unfinishedness about G+, which is not at all surprising. The service I'm looking at is not widely public. As Google's Bradley Horowitz said in a public posting, "Remember, we're in early testing … Things may be a bit wonky … bear with us."It's definitely wonky in places, but I'll have no trouble bearing with Google on this service. Google+ is already good enough for me to use on a daily basis, and I can't wait to see how it evolves.