First Look: Google Plus Adds Much To Social Networking Mix

At practically the same time that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was announcing new integration of Skype audio and voice calling for Facebook, Google was in the early stages of rolling out its Google Plus social networking service.

And that has led to the typical onslaught of which-is-better arguments between users of both Google Plus and Facebook -- arguments that tend to provide more heat than light.

Google Plus is what its creators say they want it to be: a neat place for sharing, discussing, collaborating and consuming information. You connect with users of Google Plus by accepting them into ’circles’ of your own creation. You can have a business contacts circle, a circle for teammates on a specific work project, a circle for family members, for other Little League parents or for software engineers designing an application together. When you provide a status update, you get to decide which circle or circles get to see the update, and whether that information can be shared outside a circle.

In other words: With Google Plus, Google has caught up to Lotus Notes.

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Well, there are a few differences with Notes. First of all, Google Plus is free. Also, it’s Web-based (even the mobile app for the iPhone is a Web app.) But the biggest difference that Google could turn into a game-breaker is its integration of group video conferencing.

Google Plus ’Hangouts’ is a feature that allows for on-the-fly group video chats that is simply a wonderful experience. Designed to accommodate as many as 10 people in a Hangout, Google has really built a nifty video app. For example, when a speaker in a video conference call takes the floor and begins speaking, Google immediately places the speaker’s video frame in the center of the conversation and expands the frame larger than all the others. There is also a text-chat bar on the side of the screen. And remember: it’s all free.

The downside, and for many it will be a fatal flaw: Anyone who gets the URL for Hangout can just enter at will, regardless of whether they know you, your other conferees, or not. That means it’s not a secure video conference. Even for non-business video conferencing, there’s something unsettling about the prospect of a complete stranger jumping uninvited into a video chat with you. There are options that can be taken for keeping people out -- but security is not a default.

This is not to dismiss Hangouts as a feature because, technically, Google has created an outstanding video conferencing interface. With privacy and security added, it could become the best video collaboration app available -- and that includes Skype.

In fact, the one headline that may have been buried this month -- when looking at both Google Plus Hangouts, Apple’s FaceTime and Facebook’s Skype video conferencing integration -- is the immediate commoditization of IP-based video communication. As of today, anyone with a notebook that is two-years old or newer, and an Internet connection, can conduct video conferencing with almost a billion people. If the technology and bandwidth hold up, this will permanently change use patterns.

As of now, neither Google nor Facebook have been able to match Apple’s mobile video conferencing with FaceTime on iPhone 4 and iPad 2 – which also integrates on the desktop with newer Mac OS X operating systems. (Skype for iPhone, though, does support video on that mobile platform.)

Next: Beyond Video: How Google Plus Fits In

Other aspects of Google Plus are great: The sharing feature is easier to use than Facebook’s or even Twitter’s. Google has also created its own equivalent of Facebook ’likes,’ by letting you click a ’+1’ button to indicate that you like someone’s status post, link, video or photo.

Google Plus is now also part of the Gmail and Google Apps dashboard, and there is some integration with Google Talk, Google Reader and Google Docs. That’s no small feat; consider the option of collaborating on a document in Google Docs with a team, and then having the capability of conducting a quick, on-the-fly video conference about that document through a Hangout. That’s functionality that Microsoft has built into its enterprise technologies, including Office 365, but Google is now giving them away for free. If security isn’t a concern, it’s worth considering.

All that’s lacking are the non-early adopters. Remember, other Google services – notably Google Wave and Google Health– have died on the vine and others like Google Buzz have failed to spread much beyond the early adopters. What makes a social networking service valuable isn’t necessarily the technology, but the people who use that same service. Google has built some outstanding sharing and collaboration technology into Google Plus, but if it’s lacking people with whom you want or need to share, it doesn’t really matter.

To be fair, not even Facebook was Facebook immediately. It’s taken several years to build up to the 750 million installed base it now has. Twitter just celebrated its fifth anniversary, but even that service really took a good two years before it really spread out beyond early adopters.

With social networking, the people are the platform. If Google can win over enough of them with Google Plus, the platform will have a powerful enabler.