Last night, you may have heard talk of a mysterious black bar appearing on the top of Google.com. Or you may have even seen it yourself. No, you weren’t hallucinating. It was a sign of something about to show itself. Something big. Google+.
What is Google+? It’s the super top-secret social project that Google has been working on for the past year. You know, the one being led by General Patton (Vic Gundotra) and General MacArthur (Bradley Horowitz). Yes, the one Google has tried to downplay as much as humanly possible — even as we got leak after leak after leak of what they were working on. Yes, the one they weren’t going to make a big deal about with pomp and circumstance. It’s real. And it’s here.
You see, the truth is that Google really is trying not to make a huge deal out of Google+. That’s not because they don’t have high hopes for it. Or because they don’t think it’s any good. Instead, it’s because what they’re comfortable showing off right now is just step one of a much bigger picture. When I sat down with Gundotra and Horowitz last week, they made this point very clear. In their minds, Google+ is more than a social product, or even a social strategy, it’s an extension of Google itself. Hence, Google+.
How’s that for downplaying it?
“We believe online sharing is broken. And even awkward,” Gundotra says. “We think connecting with other people is a basic human need. We do it all the time in real life, but our online tools are rigid. They force us into buckets — or into being completely public,” he continues. “Real life sharing is nuanced and rich. It has been hard to get that into software,” is the last thing he says before diving into a demo of Google+.
What he proceeds to show me is a product that in many ways is so well designed that it doesn’t really even look like a Google product. When I tell Gundotra and Horowitz this, they laugh. “Thank you,” Gundotra says very enthusiastically. Clearly, they’ve put a lot of work into both the UI and UX of Google+.
The first thing Gundotra shows me about Google+, and the first thing you’re likely to interact with, is something called “Circles”. You may recall that talk of this feature leaked out a few months ago — though it wasn’t exactly right. In fact, our story from months prior about a feature of Google +1 (the name of the network at the time which ended up being the name of the button — more on that in a bit) called “Loops” may have been a bit closer. That is, Circles isn’t actually a stand-alone product, it’s a feature of Google+ — an important one. “It’s something core to our product,” Gundotra says.
It’s through Circles that users select and organize contacts into groups for optimal sharing. I know, I know — not more group management. But the truth is that Google has made the process as pleasant as possible. You simply select people from a list of recommended contacts (populated from your Gmail and/or Google Contacts) and drag them into Circles you designate. The UI for all of this is simple and intuitive — it’s so good, that you might even say it’s kind of fun. It beats the pants off of the method for creating a group within Facebook.
Gundotra realizes that many social services have tried and failed to get users to create groups. But he believes they’ll succeed with Circles because he says they’re using software in the correct way to mimic the real world. More importantly, “you’re rewarded for doing this,” he says. How so? A big feature of Google+ is the toolbar that exists across the top of all Google sites (yes, the aforementioned black one). Once your Circles are set, sharing with any of them from any Google site is simple thanks to this toolbar.
Speaking of this black toolbar, which was codenamed the “Sandbar” as Google was working on it, Horowitz explains that it arose from the fact that sharing models on different sites are all different. The toolbar is an attempt to unify them. This toolbar will exist across all Google properties (though it may take some time to fully roll out). And down the road, you can imagine browser extensions, mobile versions, etc. But again, we’re on step one here.
Next, Gundotra showed off a feature called “Sparks”. He was quick to note that even though it’s a search box, this is not some sort of new search engine. Instead, he calls is a “sharing engine”. “Great content leads to great conversations,” he says. With Sparks, you enter an interest you have and Google goes out and finds elements on the web that they think you’ll care about. These can be links to blog posts, videos, books — anything that Google searches for. If you find something you like, you can click on an item to add it to your interest list (where it will stay for you to quickly refer to anytime you want). Or you can see what others are liking and talking about globally in the “Featured interests” area.
“Our goal here is to connect people. And everyone has a camera in their pocket,” Gundotra says as he shows me “Instant Upload”. This feature of Google+ relies on the use of an Android devices to take photos or shoot video. From a new app, you’ll do either of these things and the content will automatically be uploaded to Google+ in the background and stored in a private album (which you can share with one click later).
Another feature of Google+ is called “Huddle”. It’s essentially a group messaging app that works across Android, iPhone, and SMS to allow you to communicate with the people in certain Circles. When I asked why they wouldn’t just use Disco, the group messaging app that the Slide team within Google built, Horowitz would only smile and pretend that he didn’t know what I was talking about.
Finally, there’s a feature called “Hangouts”. “Everyone has high-speed networks these days, but how many use group video chat?,” Gundotra asks. “Not a lot.” He notes that while there are technical challenges, and some cost money, the biggest problem is that it’s socially awkward to video chat with someone. The Google+ team set out to fix this by thinking about neighbors sitting out on porches. If your neighbor is sitting there, you know that they’ll likely be interested in striking up a conversation. In fact, it would be rude for you to walk by and not say anything.
With that in mind, Google+ Hangout attempts to solve the social problem of video chat by making it easy for you to let others know that you’re interested in chatting. And if you’re already chatting with a Circle, everyone else in that Circle will get an alert to come hang out. This works for up to 10 people. And seeing it in action is a bit magical. Gundotra starts a Hangout with some co-workers and as they join, conversations start between multiple people. But the Google+ system is smart enough to focus on who is controlling the conversation in any given minute. This makes the conversation easy to watch. It was almost as if an editor is working behind the scenes, cutting between people.