Hands-on with Google+

Google's latest play on the social networking market, Google+, is now open for all. We take a look at what it has to offer, and see whether it's a Facebook killer or just another Orkut.

Google+ was sprung on an unsuspecting populace last last week. Designed to counter the growing threat from Facebook, Google+ integrates a bunch of products 'inspired' by other sites into a single interface. You've got wall posts - known as a 'stream' in Google+ parlance - from Facebook; check-ins from FourSquare; on-the-go posting like Twitter; photo sharing like Picasa; and a privacy system - known as 'Circles' - taken straight from Diaspora's design documents.

A lot of the technology underpinning Google+ has been around for a while. The FourSquare-like check in capabilities come courtesy of phone-tracking system Latitude, for example, while the Twitter-like microblogging streams are straight from the failed Buzz experiment. By combining everything into a single interface, however, Google is hoping that it can offer a one-stop shop for social networking addicts.

As with Google's first tentative steps into this region - namely Buzz, the wannabe Twitter killer - the launch of Google+ hasn't been smooth. Initial demand caused a few problems, which only increased when users noticed a loophole that allowed their friends to join without Google actually opening invitations. Rather than fix the hole, Google has opted to open the service fully for all to use.

The main interface feels like a cross between a Facebook wall and a Twitter feed. Everything said by anyone you follow appears in the stream, with messages getting bumped up the list as people add comments. Each post can be shared or liked - sorry, "Plus One'd" - to show your appreciation.

The concept of 'circles' separating your friends from your family and your colleagues from both is a good one, if not exactly original to Google. Moving your contacts into their individual circles is as easy as dragging and dropping, while new circles can be created if your social situation is a little more complex than the defaults allow.

Google has also unveiled Google+ integration into its navigation bar, which appears at the top of every Google site you visit. The bar alerts you when there are notifications - such as a new post or comment - and allows you to post or share content without leaving the page you're on. It's a neat implementation, and will almost certainly appear in a future version of the Chrome browser for all sites, rather than just Google's own.

Impressively, the Huddle functionality - a webcam-driven group chat facility that promises to give Skype sleepless nights - worked on our Linux test system in Firefox, which we certainly weren't expecting.

It's the Android app that truly shows the potential of Google+, however. Available for free from the Android Market now, it could be the killer app the platform has been waiting for. If you're willing to engage with a - currently - limited audience, it can replace FourSquare, Facebook, Twitter, and Picasa for starters.

The in-built notifications work well, and posting is fast even on a slow connection. Mobile check-ins work well, and - as with other types of posts - you can choose which of your circles each update is shared with. There is a rather worrying default option during installation, however, which - if left ticked - uploads every single photo taken with the Android camera app to Google+ automatically. While it uploads to a private album by default, it's something we felt safer once we'd switched off.

It's clear from our brief time using Google+ over the weekend that the advertising giant is looking to push the service heavily. Unlike its previous social networking plays like Buzz and Orkut, it's taking this one mainstream. Sadly, that's not going to be without its problems: as well as privacy concerns, Google is alienating some users by disabling services like its real-time search offering while it figures out the best way to integrate Google+.

With no real killer app for the platform - and no indication at the moment that Google will open its platform up to application developers as Facebook has - it's hard to guess whether Google+ is going to succeed. From our first impressions, however, it's certainly in with a chance - which is more than we can say for MySpace.