Articles

The Social Network: Google+

In Personal, Tech, Thoughts on July 8, 2011 by eongxien

When Google+ enabled its Sharing feature for users, I was one of the lucky few to get the invitation from an Engadget reader who was kind enough to hand out invites. As a technological geek, you can’t help but be hyped up by the Google+ promotional videos as after numerous attempts to get into social networking, it looked like Google is serious this time. As a search giant, Google is increasingly feeling the threat on Facebook, where people are slowly turning to Facebook for information rather than the traditional search engine.

From the consumer point of view, an alternative to Facebook has been long overdue. Now I loved Facebook when I started using it in 2007. It was clean, secured, had a unique “tagging” feature and was only exclusive to university students. (Anybody seen the movie The Social Network where Mark Zuckerberg’s character mentioned that Friendster and Myspace were too cluttered?) Then, Facebook was opened to everybody. And then, Facebook was commercialized. And all hell broke loose. Well, I’m still an avid Facebook user. I use it to keep in touch with friends, to share photos, to plan events and to check out interesting sites. However, as much as I can understand the purpose of gaming, I don’t want any invites to join someone’s quest to slaughter dragons. Neither do I want to click on a video on “Hot Bikini Babes” only to find that it plans to hack my account.

Google+: First Impressions

At first glance, the interface of Google+ resembles – almost-criminally – Facebook. Getting used to the interface still took a little learning curve but once you got it, it becomes intuitive. Interestingly, Google+ is integrated with your Google account, Gtalk as well as Picasa. All of your contacts and photos contained in the aforementioned services will be automatically ported to +. Neat. The functionality of grouping friends through Circles is also a breath of fresh air, as it allows you to limit the stuff you share online to certain circle of friends, although how secure it is remains to be seen.

Another feature I love is the Hangout feature, essentially a video conferencing app. In any hangouts that you create, you’re allowed up to 10 participants in a conversation. What Google is preaching here, is that Hangout is a spontaneous app where people could create a public (Or limited to Circles, you decide) Hangout and anybody bored could just jump into it. The feature is enticing, having tried out the feature with my girlfriend, I could safely say that -save for some minor dropouts- the feature is well-implemented. This is definitely one feature I can’t wait to use when users start to migrate over.

On the mobile app (Yes, they’ve developed a mobile app for Android), the Huddle feature allows one to set up a quick group chat on your mobile. Unfortunately it’s not available on the desktop version yet, which I suspect would be subtle yet significant addition. The Spark feature, on the other hand is a news feed that allows you to key in keywords that you’re interested in. However, it seems out of place in the context of a social networking site and it feels somewhat half-baked.

All in all, there isn’t much to shout about as Google+ is still in beta but on a positive note, the Google+ team has gotten the fundamentals right. I liked that I don’t have to re-upload my photos as most of them were on Picasa already, but I hope they look into Youtube integration in the near-future.

Future Directions

Back in mid-2000s, Facebook was a new company tasked with an uphill battle to dethrone Myspace and Friendster from their duopoly. It didn’t take long though, as quality of services offered by the 2 companies were deteriorating. Today, Facebook will know better than to rest on their laurels. With rumours of them going listed, Facebook wants to maintain their monopoly in social networking. However unlike Facebook then, Google is already as established company with a strong offering of various online services. Some of Facebook’s features,  are already available in Google’s portfolio and all they need is to ensure seamless integration into +.

The great thing about using + early, is that it has the potential to be something big. Here are some of my ideas or directions where El Goog could take + in the future. Some of them makes more sense than others, but they are ones that are at the top of my head:

1. Groups & Collaboration

Our Leo Club still uses Yahoo! Groups to collaborate and keep club members updated on new activities, files and announcements. The interface though is incredibly outdated (90s Discussion Board, anybody?) and we haven’t been able to find a suitable alternative since. Facebook Group is neat and easy to implement considering everybody is on Facebook.  However there is a lack of features such as file sharing and file management as Facebook has barely improved the features in Group since its introduction a few years ago.

Now Google doesn’t need to implement much. They already have Google Apps that are targeted at SMEs who needs mail hosting and work collaboration. All Google needs to do is to launch a Group feature and integrate it with apps such as GTalk, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Photos and Youtube. Each group will have its own Calendar for events invitation/tracking, Google Docs folder to manage their files/documents and Photos/Youtube to share media files. On top of that, group users can take advantage of the Hangout feature to arrange quick online meetings (Taking into consideration of bandwidth, each Hangout could be limited to 10 Video+Audio participants, while the rest could only join and make text comments).

In other words, it is Google Apps lite for social networking. The day they do that is the day I migrate all my club members from Yahoo! Groups to Google+ Groups!

2. Hangouts

Although Google+ is currently limiting its users to non-corporate ones, eventually they will start targeting corporations and organizations ala Facebook Page. The Hangout feature could be useful for them in various ways such as a live announcement where followers could tune into. Or perhaps musicians could stream their live gig/performance where their fans could tune in to watch or comment. In other words, it allows a far more interactive platform for these users to get in touch with their followers. The media features in Facebook still have room for improvement. Google has an upper hand by owning Youtube and more recently Google Music & Google Books. If they exploit these advantages right, they just might be able to win a large number of users over.

3. Hangout on Mobiles

Alright, this is hardly a major feature and everybody’s asking it, but really this should be a top priority for Google. =)

Conclusion

This year has been an exciting year for Google so far. The release of Android Honeycomb OS for tablet, NFC mobile payments and even the design revamp of its core offerings have vowed the industry so far. But none of it compares to the hype of Google+ as after many years of domination, Facebook is finally getting a worthy competitor. It’s still early days, as the introduction of Video chat/Skype and rumours of being listed show that they are shifting to fifth gear. Needless to say, a social network site is dependent on the number of active users it has and it will take a huge incentive for users to move to Google+. It’s still early days and whilst what Google has shown so far is promising, they still have lots of ground to cover. They have already failed with Google Buzz and Wave, they cannot afford to fail with Google+ or Sergey Brin and Larry Page could start considering some of Facebook IPOs.

Jokes aside, as a consumer it’s always great to have competition. Let’s see what both companies will have to offer in the next few years. In the meantime, let’s just enjoy the ride.

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