(Old story, posting it here for archival purposes)

Image Credit: http://findchaos.tumblr.com/

Google Plus debuted last week. It happens to be the web giant’s third attempt at capturing a piece of the social networking pie (Orkut, Buzz and Wave are all Google babies). And the ensuing brouhaha surrounding the latest launch was akin to what was seen seven years ago when the company unveiled its ‘invitation-only’ release of Gmail. Like then, people began scouring their entire contact lists for ‘invites’ to the ‘limited field trial’ of Plus – and there were even reports of a few people hawking accounts for monetary considerations. Well, I was lucky enough to be invited. And I must admit that, while the Mountain View-based company has taken a few pages out of Facebook (no pun intended), it has also added a few nifty features to Plus. One of the better features is the option to create ‘Circles’ that lets you share different content with different sets of people based on the Circle you have added them to. And then there’s ‘Hangout’ that allows you to create a video chat room for up to 10 people. But let’s start from the Home Page…

Home Page
Once you sign up, you are greeted by an uncluttered main page that’s almost characteristic of Google’s minimalistic approach. Here, you can update status messages, make posts, share videos and photos with your friends – just like you can on Facebook.
What you can also do here, however, is share your location if you’re using a phone running Android 2.1 or higher (reports indicate that similar functionality will soon be available for iPhones).
Besides, Plus—due to its seamless integration with other Google products—makes it easier to share videos from YouTube and photos from Picasa when compared to a Twitter or Facebook. So, instead of opening a separate window to find a YouTube video to post, you can search inside the same network.
Plus even borrows from Twitter’s ‘Follow’ option where you can add practically anyone to your Circle (more on this later) to view their public posts on your own main page. The good thing (or bad), unlike the microblog, the posts are not limited to 140-character messages.
Now, if you like a post made by a friend, you can show your approval by clicking on the +1 button, right below that entry. This, of course, works exactly like Facebook’s ‘Like’ button. Profile Page The Profile Page aggregates the history of your posts on Google Plus. Here, on the top panel—besides Posts, Photos, Videos and aggregated +1s—you can also access the About page where you can enter your personal information.
You are also given the option to post links to other networking accounts that you may have.
And yes, if you’re active on Buzz, aka Google’s version of Twitter, you can also access that feed from here.

Circles
Now, if there’s one thing that differentiates Plus from Facebook, it’s got to be Circles.
The interface lets you drag and drop your ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ into various sub-groups. In effect, when you make posts available to your Friend’s Circle, these will not be visible to contacts in your Office Circle. The site lets you create as many Circles as you want.
The Circles are also visible on your Main Page in the left-hand panel besides your main feeds. Here, if you select your Office Circle, for example, only those posts that are made by colleagues will be visible to you on the page.
This is not to say that contacts can only be added to a single Circle. You could choose to include a person in as many groups as you deem fit.
Creating Circles is easy and takes a few minutes. Try selective sharing on Facebook, and you’ll end up wasting more time because it isn’t as upfront and easy as Google makes it for you.
The best part, you can add anyone to your circles. I created a Circle called ‘Internet czars’ and added Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg to it. Adding people to your circle is a lot like following them on Twitter – it lets you read their public posts.
But to truly enjoy the experience, you’ll need a wide screen because the interface doesn’t resize for smaller monitor displays. Creating Circles on a 14-inch monitor is painful because you end up using the scroll bar, time and again.



Photos Page
Just like Facebook, Plus has its own version of the Photos page where you can view all the pictures uploaded by the contacts in your Circles. Due to integration with Picasa, users are allowed unlimited storage.
Click on a picture, and it zooms in; complete with a side panel that displays comments made by friends for each of the images.
Clicking on the ‘Actions > Photo Details’ option below any zoomed-in photo allows you access to histogram information, camera details, exposure, aperture, focal length, ISO speed, etc, for the particular picture.
Under ‘Actions’ option you will also find an ‘Edit Photo’ feature with five basic picture-processing filters, including auto colour, auto contrast and black and white.
Processing the photo takes a few seconds on a good broadband connection. Not bad at all.

Sparks
This feature, which can be found on the left panel of the main page, lets users find the latest content—news stories, blog posts, videos—pertaining to things that interest them.
Click on the link and you are taken to a page that prompts you to add your topics to Sparks. Using Google’s engines, the page then aggregates all the content that matches with the term you added.
A ‘share’ button below each news/blog item makes it easier to post the link to your Plus stream. Simply put, Sparks is a news aggregator that lets you divide your feeds based on topic and all within your Plus social network.

Huddles

This is a group texting feature, which is currently only available on Android phones. Google is promoting it as a cost-effective way of chatting with a group of people in real-time, much like BlackBerry’s messenger and Whatsapp.

Hang Out
If you don’t have webcam phobia, and are comfortable broadcasting video online, this feature is sure to have you hooked. After asking you to ‘check your hair and make sure your mic works’, Google lets you videoconference with up to 10 friends simultaneously (though you will need to download a plug-in for this).
As people join your Hang Out, the screen splits into a strip of little squares of video with one central window in the middle. You get featured in the middle, when Google’s algorithms detect that you speaking on your mic. You’re relegated to the smaller squares as soon as someone else takes centrestage.
After I created a Hang Out (the link can be found on the right-hand panel of the main page), me and my friends spent 30 minutes chatting with each other. The feature works as promised, provided you have decent internet bandwidth at your disposal. I can see Hang Out being used to facilitate business meetings and even gossip session between friends (you can even watch YouTube videos together).

Data Liberation
Designed by a Google engineering team tasked with making it easier for users to move their data in and out of Google products, the Data Liberation option lets you save a backup of your photos, profile information, contacts, Circles, stream posts and Buzz posts on your computer.

Data Liberation Front

Using the feature, which can be found under Account Settings, I managed to download all my activity in a zip folder in less than two minutes. This makes it easier to find something you posted a year ago.
Indeed, Data Liberation is a great tool for people who complain that they have no way of archiving their tweets, Flickr images, or finding Facebook posts from a year ago.

Verdict
Plus is definitely worth trying. Once you’ve signed up, it’s tough to say goodbye because Google draws you back with its newly-introduced black toolbar that squats across Google sites and posts a notification to alert you about the activity on Plus. For people who primarily share multimedia, this platform makes it easy because of its simplicity in design and the able support of other Google products. Features such as Hang Out are worth a dekko. And with Circles, you do not feel compelled to reciprocate a ‘Follow’ like you would on Twitter. Still, there aren’t any options to create groups and this might prove a hindrance to creating thriving communities like on Facebook and Orkut. Also, there is no way to search posts posted by your friends or anyone in the network, big drawback again. And if you like social games or applications, you’ll be disappointed because Plus does not have any. Yet.

Reactions:

@preshit: Quite like and welcome the new design direction that Google is heading in with Google+ (and Gmail). As a product, I think Google+ takes some good bits from Twitter and Facebook and gives me the platform wherein I can put down my thoughts and share interesting things with friends, acquaintances and the world, while still maintaining the control on the content that I want to.

@itemmom: Plus is like joining a new social media network altogether, it isn’t an extension of what I already use. Google plus confuses me. I would have liked it if the mail, buzz, blog, reader all was integrated in one window.

@GhumakkadChoree: My tweets and posts online are like a mini screenshot of my life. I do it so that I don’t forget any mood swing or major event, everything is recorded online. Now I can download all my photos, statuses and memories in a zip folder without worrying about losing the information.
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