Finally managed to get into the Google+ trial today, after a couple of weeks of trying both official and unofficial channels. Taking the responsible journalist route and contacting Google’s PR to request entry generated as much response as hitting a large rock with a slightly smaller rock, so I was forced to wait until a colleague gained access through a better-connected friend and extended an invitation my way.
This could well be Google’s masterplan to drive adoption at the same time as finding and squashing bugs at a reasonable rate. The pressure building up as a result of the restricted entry process leads potential users to put actual effort into the search for hacks, workarounds and precious invitations, leading to an inflation in the value placed on the service when they finally get in.
At the same time, the initial crop of beta users is likely to be the most committed lusters after gadgetry and nerd cred, exactly the kind of people you want to be on a testing phase, as they are more likely to submit a ticket and wait for a problem to be resolved than just quit at the first sign of trouble. I don’t think the mass of current Facebook users would be so forgiving of a service that doesn’t quite measure up to the polish of that venerable network.
When I say the service is unpolished, I am certainly not referring to the design elements. Some serious thinking about usability has gone into building this thing, and it blows away the occasionally frustrating experience of using other networks. Google’s strong preference for an uncluttered interface (which is a big part of why they became so ubiquitous in web search) helps tone down the information glut that can easy overwhelm new users. There is the occasional mis-step, such as being unable to directly message a user from their profile page, an elementary step that the ‘Wall’ concept has drummed into us.
The integration with the Android application is quite fantastic, and if Facebook don’t copy some of Google’s work here they’ll be doing themselves a disservice. The home screen gives easy access to your profile, various streams from different circles, photo sharing, Circle management and a cut-down version of the Hangout chat tool without video chat called Huddle. So far, so any other social network.
It’s the little touches that mark this as a prestige release from a platform holder. When viewing the stream of posts from contacts in your Circles, you can swipe right for an ‘Incoming’ stream of updates from people who have added you to a Circle, but that you don’t yet follow. Swiping left gives you a ‘Nearby’ stream, of all Public updates from Google+ users in your immediate vicinity (be wary what you choose to post at work). Photo sharing is simple and quick, as by default Google+ pre-uploads your media to a cache on Google’s servers, ready to send off at the touch of a button. If you’re worried about the privacy implications, the permission that allows Google+ to do this is revokable at any time.
The mobile app isn’t without it’s irritations. It attempts to run in the background and fire off notifications every time someone adds you as a friend or comments on one of your posts. This is pretty handy, although unfortunately, email notifications for these events are turned on by default. So using G+ can rapidly swamp you under a load of useless update notifiers, much like the recently redesigned Twitter defaults. It is a simple matter to turn off either app or email notification, but some of us (I am referring to myself here) like being updated whenever an interaction takes place, and don’t always have access to our phones. A patch that checks whether the application is running, and if so stops the email being sent, would be very welcome.
There are a few elements of G+ that just don’t connect for me as yet. Sparks — a tool that uses the Google search engine to produce a stream of web links to follow like a Twitter feed — seems an undercooked mess at the moment, with useful information tumbled in with junk data. I’m not exactly convinced that I need to rely on Google to curate my content for me, considering that I already have so many RSS feeds, blogs, Twitterers and friends doing a fine job with no assistance. The location widget is also extremely inaccurate, having put my position several miles away whilst at work, and doing only slightly better on mobile.
Peer to peer communication is also slightly more difficult than with Facebook. Because G+ has dispensed with the principle of every user having a ‘wall’ to which their updates are ‘posted’, you cannot simply post a comment or message to a Friend’s wall from their profile. Instead, you must create a new message, then choose to restrict the recipients to only the intended friend.
This is the service’s weakness, but also it’s strength. Your stream can be as broad as Twitter, broadcasting your thoughts to every yahoo who cares to listen, or as narrow as email.
Worth the switch?
Will I continue to use Google+? Well, that’s not really up to me. The reason I joined Facebook, after several years of protesting my complete indifference, was simply that it became a primary communication medium for my extended friendship group. The superior feature set of Google’s competitor could mean very little when placed against the overwhelming advantage of numbers enjoyed by Zuckerberg and co. My vote, should I be consulted, would be on the upstart Google+ and its ‘privacy from the ground up’ design.