Google is going head to head against Facebook with the launch of Google+, a fully-fledged social networking platform.
“Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online,” writes senior vice-president: engineering Vic Gundotra on the company blog. “Yet the subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools.”
The Google+ project, he says, aims to include users, their relationships and their interests. The four legs of the project are circles, sparks, hangouts and mobile.
With circles, Gundotra says users will be able to share what matters, with the people who matter most.
“Not all relationships are created equal,” he says. “So in life we share one thing with college buddies, another with parents, and almost nothing with our boss. The problem is that today’s online services turn friendship into fast food – wrapping everyone in ‘friend’ paper – and sharing really suffers:
“It’s sloppy. We only want to connect with certain people at certain times, but online we hear from everyone all the time.
“It’s scary. Every online conversation (with over 100 ‘friends’) is a public performance, so we often share less because of stage fright.
“It’s insensitive. We all define “friend” and “family” differently – in our own way, on our own terms – but we lose this nuance online.
“In light of these shortcomings we asked ourselves, ‘What do people actually do?’ And we didn’t have to search far for the answer. People in fact share selectively all the time – with their circles.
“From close family to foodies, we found that people already use real-life circles to express themselves, and to share with precisely the right folks. So we did the only thing that made sense: we brought circles to software. Just make a circle, add your people, and share what’s new – just like any other day.”
Sparks allows users to strike up conversations, about pretty much anything, says Gundotra.
“Healthy obsessions inspire sharing, and we’ve all got one (or two, or three…). Maybe it’s muscle cars, or comic books, or fashion, but the attraction is always the same: it comes up in conversation, we immediately jump in, and we share back and forth with other fans. Often for hours. The trick is getting things started, and getting over that initial hump. Fortunately, the web is the ultimate icebreaker.
“The web, of course, is filled with great content – from timely articles to vibrant photos to funny videos. And great content can lead to great conversations. We noticed, however, that it’s still too hard to find and share the things we care about – not without lots of work, and lots of noise. So, we built an online sharing engine called Sparks.
“Thanks to Google’s web expertise, Sparks delivers a feed of highly contagious content from across the Internet. On any topic you want, in over 40 languages. Simply add your interests, and you’ll always have something to watch, read and share – with just the right circle of friends.”
Hangouts, Gundotra adds, as places where users can stop by and say hello, face-to-face-to-face.
“Whether it's inside a pub or on a front porch, human beings have always enjoyed hanging out. And why not? It's how we unwind, recharge, and spend unscheduled time with old and new friends alike. Hanging out is deceptively simple though, and the nuance gets lost online.
“Just think: when you walk into the pub or step onto your front porch, you're in fact signalling to everyone around, ‘Hey, I've got some time, so feel free to stop by’. Further, it’s this unspoken understanding that puts people at ease, and encourages conversation.
“But today’s online communication tools (like instant messaging and video-calling) don’t understand this subtlety. They’re annoying, for starters. You can ping everyone that’s ‘available’, but you’re bound to interrupt someone’s plans. They’re also really awkward. When someone doesn't respond, you don't know if they’re just not there, or just not interested.
“With Google+ we wanted to make on-screen gatherings fun, fluid and serendipitous, so we created Hangouts. By combining the casual meet-up with live multi-person video, Hangouts lets you stop by when you're free, and spend time with your circles. Face-to-face-to-face.”
Mobile allows users to share what’s around, right now, without any hassle.
Gundotra comments: “These days a phone is the perfect sharing accessory: it's always with you, it's always online, and it's how we stay close with our closest friends. We didn’t want ‘just’ a mobile experience, however, so with Google+ we focused on things (like GPS, cameras, and messaging) to make your pocket computer even more personal.”
So Google+ allows for location, instant upload and a feature called huddle.
“In life, the places we visit shape conversations in lots of meaningful ways,” Gundotra explains about location. “If we call John from the airport, he’ll likely ask about our trip. Or if Jane texts from a nearby restaurant, we might join her for dessert. With Google+ you can add your location to every post (or not. It’s always up to you).”
In terms of instant upload, he points out that most users don’t even bother getting photos off their phones. “Of course pictures are meant to be shared, not stranded, so we created Instant Upload to help you never leave a photo behind. While you're snapping pictures, and with your permission, Google+ adds your photos to a private album in the cloud. This way they're always available across your devices – ready to share as you see fit.”
Huddle was born out of the frustrations of trying to co-ordinate with friends and family in real-time. “After all, everyone's on different schedules, in different places, and plans can change at any moment. Phone calls and text messages can work in a pinch, but they're not quite right for getting the gang together. So Google+ includes Huddle, a group messaging experience that lets everyone inside the circle know what's going on, right this second.”
Google+ is available today on Android Market and the mobile web. It will soon be available in the App Store.