Well, after much expectation, Google is inching towards releasing a social networking product in an attempt to emulate Facebook, only of course they're not actually talking about it like that. It's still very much in a closed beta, with only a few people being allowed to play with it as yet. This is probably wise, given the mistakes that they made with Google Wave and Google Buzz. I'd rather wait a while and get a better product than launch into something that wasn't very good earlier. So I don't have much to go on, other than the official Google blog and the posts of informed commentators such as Danny Sullivan. However, let's take a look at what's out there anyway.
It's called what?
The first thing that completely puzzles me is the name. Google+. What they're thinking about I've no idea - it's hard to search for, it's even harder to pronounce (I plussed it? I Googleplussed it?) and it's way too close to their other recent project the Google +1 button. So as Danny said in his post, we're going to be in a position to say "I plus one'd your site on Google+" Hopeless and very confusing. Anyway, that apart, what can we expect? Here's the first of several videos:
(As a trivial aside, isn't it possible for Google to actually *edit* the audio? Do we need the um's, ah's and uh... like, err, that sort of stuff?) So this first video doesn't actually tell us that much. Facebook or indeed any other social network could have said pretty much the same thing about their offering. We do know that there will be circles of friendship groups (Why couldn't they call it Google Circles? They already have the 'oo' in the name. It would have been quite neat), and you can click and drag people into certain groups. Well, in Facebook I can also create lists of people, so that doesn't particularly excite me. And if you have thousands of contacts? Can't see that working terribly well to be honest.
Here's another one, which basically says nothing fresh at all, other than a basic and fairly pointless discourse on the nature of friendship with a voice over from some guy who sounds like Leonard Nimoy.
I can't honestly see that this would make me want to spend time using the product, so let's take a look at some of the other elements of it.
Here's the video introduction.
'For nerding out. Together'. Right. This is, as I understand it, a way that you've got to share stuff with your friends. That's fine, and any social network is going to want to do this, so it's an integral need, but again, I have Facebook Like, or even Google +1 button or Delicious or Twitter to do that for me already. So again, I'm kinda underwhelmed. (I know that I'm coming across as negative, and I'm sorry - I really want to like this project, and I'd love someone to take on Facebook directly, and Google seems to be the only hope there, but I'm not seeing that 'wow factor' or spark of excitement yet.)
This is much more interesting. Again, the video to start with:
I love the informality of the 'hangout' idea, and can see how useful this could be. With the ability to share sites or webpages this becomes an excellent tool for training, guiding, inductions and so on, as well as general chatting. You're limited to 10 people, and that's reasonable. However, you can't save the chat, and you can't have other people watching it but not participating. So the idea of having say - a panel discussion goes straight out of the window, which is a real shame. If Google can tweak this around a bit, that's a clear winner in my book.
This is the smartphone element of Google+ and given the almost total lack of any decent Facebook mobile interface, this could be something of a winner. Google+ has decided to concentrate on two areas - saving pictures and chatting. You can save images into a private cloud because apparently saving images is difficult (really? Doesn't everyone just add their phone images directly to something like Flickr? Takes a couple of moments and it's a doddle.) The video for that is available, but to be honest, think of what it would look like and you're there. There's also a 'huddle' where you can do what's basically an MSN chat with a group on your mobile. Nice and simple, it looks interesting and exciting. Here's the video.
So, 4 different elements so far. Circles, Sparks, Hangouts and Mobile. There is a level of interactivity that I like, and can see how this could be used within our (information) environment. If you have roaming members of staff it would be quite cool to quickly use the Hangouts element to have chats back and forth, especially if you had an enquirer directly with you. The mobile huddle element could also be useful, in that you could discuss a query with a colleague AND the original enquirer. Small induction groups would work, as would sessions covering different subject areas. This could all be planned in advance or casually, as Google suggests. Really nice. I'm actually becoming quite enthused at this point!
However, there are downsides to the whole project, as identified by Danny in his post. Lots of things that don't actually work that well - which is ok since it's beta, but nonetheless are worrying. First off is the idea of who you're going to have in your Google+ group. You can't import your friends from Facebook. I only have a couple of hundred tops, and that's way too many for me to want to add in from scratch - and people who have built up thousands are simply not going to do it. Facebook simply would not allow this to happen. Do I want to start the whole thing again, from scratch? Nope. Any contacts that you have in your Google contacts will be available. But do you even know who they are? This is a real problem for Google in that they've been so bad at social media even when they have tried something, no-one knows or even cares. I could perhaps use my Gmail contacts, but that's everyone! I don't always associate an email with a person either.
Another WTF moment is that the things that you +1 don't get incorporated into Google+. (See where the confusion is already starting?) That's as though the Facebook Like button doesn't do anything in Facebook. Pointless. Surely this needs to be an integral part of what you do within the social network - showing people what you like. As Danny says "But when it will launch is unclear, and it really feels like an incredible mistake that it’s not part of the launch." I can only agree.
So, is it going to be a 'Facebook Killer'? (An 'anything killer' is a pretty stupid phrase in my book, but what the heck) Absolutely not. As it stands, there's not enough to make me, or I suspect most other people want to move across from Facebook. I think that Google has left this way too late. The momentum is all with Facebook now, and Google is left (as it so often is nowadays) playing catchup. There is some nice - really nice functionality, but most of it is already available elsewhere. There needs to be really tight integration, an easy way of importing friends and sharing stuff, and I'm not seeing this yet. I wish the project well, if only to spur Facebook along, but I can't see this causing them any real concerns at all. Which is a shame.