After a couple of attempts by Google at taking on Facebook and Twitter, first with Orkut, then with Wave and finally with Buzz, a fresh assault is now in the offing with Google+. And thankfully, despite initial indications to the contrary, Google hasn’t repeated the silly Orkut strategy of having a restrictive “entry-by-invitation-only” membership model. Unlike in Orkut, inviting someone to Google+ is very easy and there are no restrictions on how many people you can invite.
First things first. My initial impression of Google+ is that it is undoubtedly much better than Orkut. The interesting thing is, though, that some parts of Google+ are quite similar to Facebook. Particularly the Home and Profile tabs are quite similar in look and functionality to the corresponding Facebook tabs. Conversations are also nested, just like in Facebook. There is a “Share what’s new…” box, similar to the “What’s on your mind?” box in Facebook, and the +1 button imitates Facebook’s “Like” button.
Now, admittedly, the whole purpose of Google+ is to beat Facebook at its game, but is it a good strategy to try and do that by being a Facebook clone? If you ask me, I don’t think it’s such a bad idea to start off with.
People are quite used to the Facebook model of social networking. Not many will be keen to put in efforts to adapt to a new social networking portal that simply changes the rules of the game while offering nothing new in terms of basic functionality. In fact, a lot of people will be intimidated if faced with something drastically different from what they’re used to.
In other words, if Google had tried to wean users away with a drastically different social networking product, it almost certainly wouldn’t have worked because no one would want to leave a familiar environment unless there was a compelling reason to do so. And providing that compelling reason is far easier said than done.
Those familiar with the game of Cricket will agree when I say that the reason why the Twenty20 format worked while similar offerings in the past failed (remember Super 8s, Hong Kong Super Sixes, etc) is that it started off with the same rules and format as ODIs and then created a separate identity for itself through nifty additions like free hits, super over, cheerleaders, etc.
What makes Google+ different?
So fine, we understand that Google+ needs to be similar to Facebook to make it easier to migrate to it. Having said that, what then is/are the key differentiator/s between Facebook and Google+? Fundamentally, the only difference I can see is the ability to restrict specific chatter to specific subsets of your connections, called Circles, thereby providing better privacy by allowing you to control who sees what.
A Circle is a nothing but a group of people with common characteristics, such as “friends”, “colleagues”, “relatives”, etc. You can create any number of Circles you want, and with any name you want. You can also add any of your contacts to any number of Circles. When you post or share anything (such as a video, a picture or a URL), you can choose which Circles will see it. This is a crucial difference from Facebook, where all your direct connections can see everything you post and share.
In networking terms, a Circle is like a Virtual LAN (VLAN). Facebook works like a physical LAN, where everyone sees everything you publish. Google+, on the other hand, will allow you to configure several VLANs, such that members of one VLAN (Circle) cannot see what’s going on on the other VLANs.
Apart from Circles, the two other prominent new features in Google+ are Sparks and Hangouts.
Sparks are simply categorised search results on various topics, such as fashion, movies, soccer, etc. It is basically Google News Search integrated into Google+.
Hangouts are basically multi-person video chats, where you can have a videoconference with up to 10 people at a time. This is an improvement over Facebook, which only recently introduced a one-on-one video chat feature in association with Skype.
While Google seems to have its basic strategy in place with Google+, it still needs to work on refining the look and feel of the Google+ portal. Currently it looks too sparsely populated with lots of empty space. Facebook has done a great job here, with just the right amount of information placed on each page – neither too little nor too much.
Let’s see what lies ahead in this clash of the titans.