I somehow landed on the Google Plus social network page when the sign-up process was open, and managed to get set up. Sadly, registration has been closed again already, and the sending of invites has been temporarily disabled. I've played around with it a bit today and this evening, and one thing's pretty clear: video is a big part of Google's social strategy.
Hands On With Google Plus
Right now, there are five main "apps" or "widgets" you can use in Google Plus. All five are highlighted by Google's own promotional page for Plus. They are as follows:
Circles is a simple idea, but it's also brilliant. Allow users to place their contacts into one or more "circles," such as Friends, Family, Co-workers, etc. Then, when posting to your "Stream" (Google Plus's version of the Facebook Wall), you can choose which Circles will see the update. You can choose to allow only one Circle's contacts to see the post, or add multiple Circles to the list. You can even set a Stream update to "public."
Hangouts is where you will most see how important video is to Google's social plans. And it is very important. Hangouts is essentially a way to create your own custom video chat rooms. You can let one friend know you've started a Hangout, or tell entire Circles about it. Anybody who wants to can then come join your Hangout.
Bottom line: multiple people on video chat all in one room. Outstanding. It's like Chatroulette... only with actual useful functions (because chatting with friends spontaneously is far more engaging over the long haul than chatting with strangers spontaneously).
If you want to see it in action, here's a video recording made yesterday of a Google Plus Hangouts group video chat involving some of the guys from Boing Boing and Etsy:
Instant Upload is another place Google Plus shows off its love of video. Instant Upload, once you've added the Google Plus app to your mobile device, will basically take every photo and video you record with your phone and upload it automatically to a sort of Google Plus holding bay. Then, you can decide whether or not to share it with your friends and Circles.
So basically it eliminates a step in the photo and video sharing process, letting users skip the manual upload altogether. Nice.
Sparks appears to be a kind of Pandora for web content. You tell Sparks what you're interested in, and it will periodically find and send you content it thinks you'll like. It's a cool enough idea, I suppose, but it all depends on how well it works.
The Huddles feature isn't exactly revolutionary. It's basically a group texting app. Built around your Google Plus Circles, Huddles is a way to let multiple people (chosen by you) in on a text message conversation. There are already mobile apps that do this sort of thing, but there's no reason Google's version can't do the job just as well, or maybe even improve on it.
General Thoughts About Google Plus
Whatever the fun and sensational headlines tell you, this won't be a Facebook killer... at least not for a long time. The biggest problem with the service is that it's brand new. None of my friends are on it yet. So unless I make everything public, there's not a lot for me to say or do.
However, if all my Facebook friends were on Plus, I think there's definitely a lot to like. the interface, while very reminiscent of Facebook, is a little cleaner. There are new features that Facebook doesn't have--Circles, in particular. And I'm very curious to check out Hangouts and try some group video chatting with friends and family.
It appears as though there's a nice level of privacy control with Google Plus as well, which is an area where Facebook has taken some PR hits in the last year or two.
If you'd like to hear Google's take on Plus, check out this video (they're videos are always pretty great):
You can also check out a great interactive demo of Google Plus here.
Predictions For The Near Future Of Google Plus
I think it's pretty obvious that two big things are going to happen, and probably soon:
1. Google Plus will become a big part of the search experience. In fact, in the sign-up process, there's a section about making your information searchable to friends or to the public. So members who search Google will signed into their Google or Google Plus account will likely start seeing Stream updates from people they're connected to in the results.
Also, do you think all the little design changes to Google search are just coincidentally timed with the release of Google Plus? Or is it possible it's all related?
2. Google Plus will become somehow baked into future versions of Chrome. This makes too much sense. Rockmelt has already shown that there's a market for a social-enhanced browsing experience (theirs is based around Facebook). And with Chrome already grabbing up quick market share in the browser wars, there's a natural way to tie the two services together.
I don't have any idea what that might look like, but it stands to reason we'll see Plus-based additions and upgrades to the Chrome browser in future releases.
What Do You Think?
It's hard of me to listen to arguments that Facebook will never face true competition. There's nowhere near enough data to support that conclusion. There have been previous social networking kings, just as there were search kings before Google came along.
Some day, someone will come along with a social network service that begins to compete with Facebook for users' attention. It may not be Google Plus or Diaspora, but it will almost certainly happen at some point. And buzz is quite high on Google Plus, with far more people looking for invites than there are available.
I can say this: After Buzz, +1, Wave, and others... Google Plus is the company's strongest social-related offering to date. And it's more than just a Facebook clone, offering some new concepts, ideas, and features. All the bells and whistles in the world won't make a difference, though, if the users don't show up.