Google quietly launched its Google+ service, the rumored Facebook competitor. Unlike other media outlets I won't call it a Facebook killer. I will explain why.
How it all started
Google opened access to Google+ via email invitations. I was able to grab one [Thanks Aveek Sen]. But it was a narrow window and by the time I was ready to send one to my wife, it was disabled. No complaints, + is in a development stage and going through Trail. I trust Google doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of Buzz or Wave. However, Plus is nowhere close to either of those services and looking at Plus, I am glad that Google shut down the other services.
The first impression was a lasting impression
The first impression of Google Plus is great. It is simple (typical minimalistic design of Google) yet jazzy, as well as animated. It seems Google is using HTML 5 for various animations. While Facebook is simple and minimalistic as well, Google+ looks fancier than Facebook.
Privacy invasion is one of the reasons many Free Software advocates are staying away from Facebook. The privacy control options of Facebook are ambiguous and complicated, which makes it hard for an ordinary (even expert) user to see what they are sharing with whom.
Google Plus seems to give users a clear and simple way to control and manage their privacy settings. Google Plus has made the sharing option so transparent, that you can very clearly see what you are sharing with whom.
Google has adopted a unique and more natural concept of managing your communication on Plus. They have introduced a concept called Circles: Circle of Friends, Circle of Family, Circle of Acquaintances, and you can create your own Circles. I created a Circle of Muktware Authors, so now I can have private conversation with Muktware authors, without needing to send them emails.
How do I add someone to a circle?
It’s extremely easy to add a friend to a circle. In fact the way it works is, if you want to add someone, you must add him/her to a circle. The process is so obvious that you can't make a mistake by adding a wrong person to an inappropriate group.
All you have to do is just drag and drop a user to specific circle and he/she will be added. Now, that person will be able to see only that content posted by you which is shared with the circle to who they belong. Similarly, you will be able to see content of others shared only to the circle to which you belong. Nice move. For example, if I don't want my Muktware Authors to know I am going on vacation, I will share the info only with my friends or family circle. Similarly, the story ideas I want to talk about with these Authors won't clutter the Streams of my friends and family.
In addition to having easy and complete control over friend circles, you also get easy and complete control over your Stream or content that you post on Plus. Every time you post something you will be greeted by a big green button asking you to which circle you want to share this content. The default option, I think, is public. Which means everyone will be able to see it.
For example, I want to let only my family know that I am off to vacation and not my friends or colleagues! Or I don't want to let my mom know if I am going out drinking tonight ;-)
Facebook's failure could be Google's gain
Facebook failed to manage such groups but this is where Google may succeed, if users are a bit more careful. If Google succeeds, it will bring an end to the privacy concerns on social networks.
Is it all in the apps?
Ordinary users usually don't use Facebook apps unless trapped (most are either useless and the rest are spam or malicious apps which gain access to your data – I wonder why no one complains about it).
However, there are social networking gamers who are addicted to games like Farmville. There are many other apps such which power-users use to give Facebook more information on their location or access to their data.
For such addicted gamers and power-users, availability of apps can be an area of interest. Google already has quite a lot of services which will make up for such apps.
What may matter for Plus to succeed as a business platform is how Google builds an ecosystem of apps within Google Plus. Quite a lot of users kill their time on Facebook playing games and if Google manages to get popular games in Plus circles, then we could consider Plus to be a competitor to Facebook.
Facebook's Fan pages are a rage among publishers. Many sites show their reputation by number of Facebook fans they have. Is Google planning any such feature which can emerge as a platform for publishers to market their content to users? Spark seems to be something close but not exactly comparable to Facebook pages.
A walk-through of Google Plus: Home Page
On the home page of Google +, you can see a few options. Unlike Facebook's Wall, they call it Stream.
On the top left column is your picture. When you click on your image, it takes you to your profile page where you can change your profile picture as well as manage photos, videos and other items – just the way you do it in Facebook.
Below the user images, are streams, each stream represents a social circle that you created. Upon clicking on any stream, you can see the latest updates in that stream which makes it easier for you to manage your communications. This is unlike Facebook, where your news-feed gets so cluttered that you can't even see who is saying what, under Google Plus you can keep a close eye on circles.
Then there is something called Sparks which is a stream of general interest. You can search for sites or pages and add them under Sparks. I added Muktware as a Spark and I suppose I will start getting feeds from Muktware. I have yet to explore this more (I have only spent one hour on Plus).
Stream and Sparks offer a unique experience by bringing private, personal communication together, yet keeping them separate.
Audio, Video chat built-in
Below Sparks there is a chat option. You can chat with friends already on your Google contact list. So, Plus brings an end to chatting from the Gtalk client or from Gmail. You can chat with people on your Google contact list from within Plus thus reducing the switching to Gmail. Google has an edge here over Facebook, as it offers both voice and video chat, a feature missing from Facebook.
Google recently open sourced WebRTC, which means developers can easily vicarage the technology and build on top of it. Can we expect real time social networking games on Plus?
The center column is for the messages that you post or get. It is similar to the Facebook Wall and is called Stream
The Third Column
The third column is a list of people in your circles. You can view and edit settings for these people. When you take the mouse over a name it show which circle they belong to. To remove any user from a circle, just click on the circle, select the doomed person, choose the option remove and the person will be removed from the circle.
Great Integration: Photo and Video Sharing
Plus's photo feature is integrated with Picasa which is good news as it will also work as your image archive. The images that you upload via Plus are not compressed so you don't lose quality the way Facebook does. There images are also available via Picasa so those outside Plus can also access these images.
If you already have a Picasa account, the images uploaded to your Picasa account will also be available for sharing with Plus circles. Warning: These Picasa images are accessible via Plus and are available for sharing. These are NOT shared with others. You can select and choose which images and albums you want to share with others.
You can also create albums and upload images here. When you upload an image it gives you an option of with whom you want to share the image with. In my case it showed 'Public' by default, I don't know if that's default or I made some changes. The Public setting is similar to default Picasa uploading settings where images are available publicly as you upload them.
With Plus whatever images you upload are available in full resolution. The integration with Picasa doubles up Plus photo sharing as a photo archive service too.
This integration gives Plus an edge over Facebook. The images that we upload on Facebook are good for nothing more than being shared among Facebook friends. You can't easily make back-up of them or use them as image archive as these images are compressed, thus only available in low resolution. And the albums cannot be accessed from outside the Facebook.
What I am curious about is Picasa used to have a storage limit, is Google lifting the limitoff Picasa if it is integrated with Plus? Because with Plus will come a deluge of images.
You can also upload video to your Google Plus account. The videos that you uploaded via your Android phones are available under Plus videos. I have yet to understand how it works as I am not sure what kind of integration Google is planning with YouTube.
If Google integrates Plus videos with YouTube then it will be yet another killer feature of Plus.
Serious Stuff: Data ownership
One of the biggest differences between Facebook and Plus is the ownership of data. Facebook is a one way ticket, what goes in doesn't come out (as far as I know, and if I don't know that means an average user doesn't know as well). In other words Facebook becomes the owner of your data once you upload it to Facebook.
[Update: Atanu Datta pointed me to Facebooks settings where you can download all your data. But that is not the case, Facebook doesn't let you download the most important part of your data. Read more here: Why Google+ Is Better Than Facebook: Who Owns Your Data?]
On the contrary, with Plus, you remain the owner of your data and since it is integrated with the popular and open services like Picasa (not yet certain about YouTube), you can always make a back-up of your data or export it using a desktop client.
The design of Google+ is signature of Google – simple yet elegant. Facebook adopted Google's minimalistic design, the focus was on the content and not the Facebook. Facebook kind of disappears from between the user and the communication. Google the pioneer of simplicity gave more breathing space in Google+ thus making it look less cluttered than Facebook.
The thumbnails of uploaded images and videos are a bit bigger than Facebook, so you get to see more. How Google+ manages it when there is more content to be displayed in the first fold.
Thank God Apple is not a player in Web business or it would be suing everyone who uses a white background and simplicity on its site.
I will never have to leave Google+ if I can access Gmail and other services such as docs and calenders from within Google+.
Technically you can access these features from the top bar, a design change that we noticed yesterday. From this bar you can assess Gmail, Calender, Docs and the rest of the services. However, if Google adds email notifications to Plus, users will never have to log out of Google Plus. If Google adds the capability of checking and replying mails from within Plus, it will be a killer social network.
Conclusion: Facebook under Nuclear Attack
Google+ is no less than a Nuclear Attack on Facebook. This time its not some half-baked product, Google has charged Facebook with all the weaponary it has in its arsenal, including a powerful client for Android devices. Google+ is simple yet jazzy. It is easy to use and Facebook users will find themselves at home. Switch will be seamless.
Google+ is much more than what we were expecting and in Google's own words, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Google+ has an edge over Facebook when it comes to privacy control. You can very easily control what you want to share and with whom -- something which is a nightmare on Facebook. In addition, since your images are uploaded in high-res and available via Picasa you don't have to worry about losing your data when you quit.
No, Google+ is NOT a Facebook killer. Why do you have to kill one thing for the other to survive. Yes, Google+ is the best competition Facebook has ever seen. It's good news for users, as they now have more services and they can choose to use which ever service they prefer. They can use both!
As far as my experiene goes, Google+ is going to join the rank of successful Google products.