Google is starting to finally get social media with Google+

Has Google finally figured out social media? With their latest foray into the arena, it looks like they may finally have a winner.
Written by Scott Raymond, Inactive

Everyone's talking about the new social media sensation Google+. And yes, I'm going to put my two cents in with my own view of the service.

Admittedly, I was very leery of this new social media service. After all, Google has had a less than stellar track record with such services; Orkut, Wave, and Buzz were all determined to be nearly total failures in spite of initial interest.

Google's main problem with such applications and services is that while they excel at engineering, they are way behind when it comes to user experience and functionality. Google is, after all, a company of engineers. They don't really design their products with consumers in mind.

When Google succeeds, however, they do it in spades. Gmail is possibly one of the most popular free email services on the internet in the western world. Chrome is an excellent browser, and adoption numbers increase steadily to compete with Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. And the Android platform is now the most popular smartphone operating system in the world.

I received an invite the day Google+ opened up to public access. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it at first. I realized that it felt a lot like a Facebook user's wall, but there were several things missing. Big, screaming Flash animated ads, for one thing. Ads in the middle of my stream. Ads from Facebook online games and applications that my contacts use.

The interface is very clean. It allows for threaded conversations on a subject, and isn't limited to 140 characters of text like Twitter is. You can use text formatting, and embed links, images and videos. Still, that's nothing new. Even with the annoying aspects of Facebook, it still does that already.

Google+, however, has Circles. If you've read anything about Google+ so far, you know that Circles allows you to categorize your contacts into groups--such as work, friends, family. You can put people into one or more Circles.

Sharing information is also pretty straightforward. You can share with the public, with a Circle of people, multiple Circles, individual contacts, or any variation thereof. And you can limit access on the items you share with others, if you don't want them re-sharing the items with people outside of your group of contacts.

There's also Huddle, a neat messaging service that functions in realtime. It's very much like an online chatroom, where you can invite a bunch of people and Circles, and start having a text-based conversation with them. Since it's in realtime, their messages will scroll down the screen much like IRC, albeit with a more elegant interface.

My favorite feature, however, is one that doesn't seem to be getting a ton of press when it really should: Hangout. For those of you not familiar with it, Hangout is a multi-user video chat system. Currently there is supposed to be a limit of 10 users allowed to video chat at one time. This immediately reminded me of Tinychat, an online chat service that lets up to 12 people participate in video chat at the same time, with an additional unlimited number of text chatters allowed to watch the proceedings.

The difference, however, is pretty obvious. Tinychat's video quality is lower in quality, and the layout is pedestrian. Whoever designed Hangout for Google+ really knew what they were doing. The interface is simple and elegant, the video quality is great, and it has a number of nice little tweaks that put it above the competition. For one, you have one large video screen, and then a series of small displays underneath it with the video camera image of each participant. When a participant speaks, the main display switches to the video feed from that speaker.

Hangout also has integrated Youtube video. I'm not sure where Google was going with it, because if one person watches a Youtube video, it notifies everyone else in Hangout that they are doing so--and gives them the option to also view Youtube. Apparently the idea is that one person can share the same video with all participants, but the video sharing doesn't seem to be functional yet. I don't see a burning need for the Youtube integration; any participant could simply provide a link to the Youtube video in the text chat window to the side, and everyone that wants to watch it can click on the link.

Also, Hangout apparently has been excluded from the mobile app. I'm not surprised, actually; Hangout uses a considerable amount of CPU, memory and bandwidth in order to function, and it's likely that current tablet devices simply aren't capable of keeping up. Forget about smartphones altogether; there's no way they could manage to display all of those simultaneous video feeds. Perhaps when quad-core tablets come out Google will revisit the mobile application and implement Hangout for them.

Overall, I am quite pleased with Google+. It comes as no surprise to me that early Apple Macintosh software designer Andy Hertzfeld was the lead designer for Google+. His influence shows throughout the entire service. Careful attention was paid to usability and user experience. It is definitely a service aimed at end users, rather than highly technical engineers.

There is one piece of information that has me a bit concerned. Apparently there is a programming API for adding games to Google+, much in the same way that Facebook has games. If this results in my personal stream being bombarded with requests to help friends out in FarmVille or Mafia Wars, I want the option to be able to burn their crops and slaughter their cattle as punishment for their insolence.

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