Google’s new plus points

This level of integration makes online life easier

Taking great photos with a camera phone these days can be as simple as an old-fashioned “point and shoot”. Deciding what to do next with the picture is where it gets complicated. I find it hard to choose between adding filters and uploading the picture to the Picplz or Instagram services, to Twitter or Evernote – or maybe storing them on Flickr or Facebook, or just sending them in an e-mail to a digital picture frame.

I also dither over how to call and chat with people online – Skype? Google Talk? Fring? FaceTime?

Then there are social networks, where I switch between following people’s comments on Twitter to checking out their professional lives on LinkedIn and seeing what my friends are doing on Facebook.

Before I got my hands on Google+, launched last week, I thought the “plus” might signify yet another social network adding to the complexity of choice. But, now that I have tested the service, I am starting to think it could replace all of the above services that I use and make life that much simpler.

Google+ is still in limited field trials, but here is a rundown of what to expect – and what it might replace.

Circles

Circles are the key concept. When I first joined Facebook, I accepted lots of friend requests and my social network became a mishmash of family, friends, colleagues and people I barely knew. Facebook later introduced friend lists and Groups (which it enhanced this week with Group Chat and video-calling) to help sort these into smaller gatherings, where photos and thoughts could be shared more privately. But, like many others, I never got around to tackling this retrospective rearrangement of relationships.

So, the great thing about Circles is that it encourages you to organise different groupings from the outset. People are suggested for Google+ from your contacts in Gmail, on Android phones and Yahoo and Hotmail’s services. They can be dragged into circles labelled Friends, Family, Acquaintances or any label you care to give an empty circle – I have added Hacks, Flacks, Geeks and Wonks for the journalists, PR people, tech types and analysts I know.

This means that when I send out a message, which can link to stories and include photos, videos and my location, I can choose to make it public to everyone or just certain circles. People can comment on the messages, so discussions can take place, and I can see their messages, all visible in the news stream of my particular circle or the more general public stream.

This could be useful for impromptu collaboration – I set up a circle with a few people just to share and discuss Google+, for instance.

Circles can therefore be similar to and perhaps supplant, in my case, Facebook’s newsfeed, Twitter’s lists of expert sources, Quora’s answers service and LinkedIn’s professional groups and connections – in the latter case, people seem to be paying more at­tention to updating their Google Profiles with CVs and other information, now that this formerly obscure Google feature is attached to the new service.

Hangouts

Videoconferencing is not new, but clicking “Start a hangout” in Google+ lets people in your designated circles know you are ready for a video chat, with up to 10 people able to join in simultaneously and others able to drop in and out.

The large-screen view switches bet­ween people as they speak, there is a box for text chats and sharing links, and a button to click on to choose and watch YouTube videos together. It is great technology and it is free, threatening paid-for services such as Skype’s group video chat. And it also beats the video-calling announced this week by Facebook, which is only one-to-one at present.

Huddle

Google+’s mobile app adds Huddle, which will look familiar to anyone who knows the group texting offered by popular start-ups such as GroupMe and TextPlus. It is designed for several people to chat simultaneously among themselves about, say, where to meet up or to brainstorm ideas.

Photos

As well as being able to add photos and albums of pictures stored on a PC to a Google+ message, unlimited storage is being made available in the cloud on Google’s Picasa photo service. The Photos section on Google+ is where photos from friends can be viewed and your own photos sorted and edited.

An instant-upload feature in the Android mobile app means any photo taken by a smartphone’s camera is automatically uploaded to a private area of the service for sharing later. This instant availability of my photos for editing and sharing, without having to think about it, encouraged me to use Google+ rather than Picplz, Flickr or my other usual options.

Sparks

This area of Google+ is a little hard to grasp at first. It offers lists of interests such as movies, soccer, recipes or sports cars – and presents the latest news on each subject culled from Google’s search engine in a readable format.

I found it more useful when I set up my own interests with search terms for my football team, a movie director, a favourite band and a company, which then had their own listing under Sparks and provided news that I was genuinely interested in following. The intention appears to be to encourage users to share what they see here and increase comments and discussions in Google+ as a whole.

. . .

I have been impressed with Google’s latest social effort, especially compared with its earlier at­tempts – Orkut and Buzz.

A new black bar across the top of all my Google services – Gmail, Calendar, Documents and others – visually and practically ties Google+ into my everyday work patterns by providing notifications of updates.

I may miss the variety and some of the features of using other services but this level of integration means Google+ really does represent a big plus in making my online life simpler and easier. The big minus is that very few of my friends are using it in this trial period, making it a network of limited sociability right now.

chris.nuttall@ft.com

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