The unveiling of Google+, the long-awaited social network offering from Google, sent shockwaves through the industry. The words "Facebook killer" have not been far away from many technology journalists' lips.
Having acquired early access to the closed beta, a few colleagues and I have been busily testing out the first set of features. And, as many reports show, it is very good. Two questions we ask ourselves, though: 1) is it a Facebook killer, and 2) what does this mean for the Google brand?
For me the second question is far more interesting than the first. But here are two cents from a Facebook developer and devotee's perspective on the new social rivalry.
1. Facebook Killer?
Google+ is extremely slick, very usable and rendered quicker and more tactile than Facebook by the power of coded animation and Google's superior infrastructure. It's fast and it's shiny.
"Circles" allow the user to group one's contacts by relationship (Family, Friends, Workmates) and share only the content you want accordingly. Friends are added to Circles via drag-and-drop, and the choice of Circles to share to is integrated fluidly into every function - private sharing is effortless. Compared to Facebook’s rather demanding Friend List equivalent, this is a major selling point.
Photo sharing is currently limited and the viewing of other's photos is messy - at time of writing, all contacts' photos appear mixed up on one page, sorted only by order of posting. Finding last night's party pictures is difficult, but no doubt this will improve very soon.
The two most intriguing launch features are curiously named "Sparks" and "Hangouts" - the former a content aggregator that fetches articles based on your stated interests; the latter a group video chat platform. Unlike Facebook's recently-released Skype-based video call service, Hangouts allow a whole Circle of friends/family/workmates to dip in and out of a multi-person video chat. This means that I can declare my presence on Hangouts to one or more of my Circles and have it run in the background while other friends appear and say hello when they come online. Vic Gundotra, SVP of Social at Google, compares it to a pub or front porch - it is a much more natural and intuitive way to socialize than a pre-arranged Skype chat.
How these features add up to an experience worthwhile enough to make millions switch from Facebook will be interesting to see. Google+'s user experience is polished and fast - far more so than Facebook could efficiently achieve. Facebook retains at least one major trump card - 750 million people's memories in photos, videos, and messages, none of which Google can currently touch, let alone transfer across to its own system intact. No matter how many services Google links up to +, and no doubt it will (social Docs; TV; Shopping, anyone?), until it solves either the problem of porting Facebook data or of human sentimentality, it seems unlikely that the vast majority of established Facebook users will feel the sudden urge to switch.
2. +’s for the Google Brand
From a brand perspective, however, Google+ has been a major boon. In pure financial terms, the reveal of Google+ alone boosted Google's market capitalization by US $20 billion on the first day, since cautiously reevaluated to around US $15.8 billion by Morgan Stanley.
Its value is omnipresence. Secretly, Google+ has been integrated into the top bar that appears on every Google product - from search to Gmail. Last week the Google apps bar turned an ominous black. This is why. It is good to see Google go all-out for even the beta release of one of its products.
A new level of much-needed visual and verbal consistency has set into the whole empire of the Google brand. Buttons across Google (search), Google+, and Google Calendar now have the same look and texture, designed away from the ultra-simple ‘default HTML’ look of the past (still visible e.g. in Gmail and Google Reader). Animations (such as the +1 button glimmer on search results) have been seamlessly integrated across Google and + to make the whole experience tantalizingly tactile. The shock Chrome icon redesign from March, moving from 3D metallic to a gradated 2D similar to the buttons, now makes sense as the first step in this consolidated visual identity.
“Sparks”, “Hangouts” and “Huddles” (a group chat feature) also build on a new, distinctive style of verbal identity seen in recent products “Latitude” and “Offers” as well as their “Gingerbread” and “Honeycomb” OS names.
The suggestion is that Google is taking its brand elements seriously. It is building a warm, recognizable visual and verbal system that will ease the transition from in-browser to real-world – via the upcoming Google Wallets (mobile payments) and Google TV – by defining a consistent and replicable user experience.
Alongside their expansion into social, Google is playing for trust and building brand – something Facebook has failed to capitalize on so far, as noted previously by Interbrand. It will soon be pervasive – running your phone, in your living room, keeping track of your preferences online – and whether users will choose Facebook or abandon their old content for Google’s sheer convenience will be an interesting issue to watch.