(This article split into two sections - one an overview and comparison with alternatives, second a bulletted list of observations/things to be aware of about how it works) feel free to skip to below the line if you don't want all the waffle!)
I've been playing around with Google+ for a few days now, and so far I like it. They've got everything just about right, and unlike Diaspora they've got the project live in a reasonable state, although currently still limited access while they iron out the bugs (contrary to other people I think that's a good thing, and that inviting 'the masses' at the moment would be bad if they come to it believing it's a production ready facebook competitor at a time when things might not work - I think Diaspora's probably suffered a bit from that)
The 'hangouts' are cool and allow multiple person videoconferencing within the site if you have a webcam, or just voice chat if you don't. if you have neither you can still listen and post by, well, typing on your keyboard - how quaint!
A concept like facebook lists called "circles" is inherent in Google+. You add people to a "circle" - think of it as "circle of friends". The circle's name is only visible to you, NOT those in it so you can get away with abusive circle names if you feel the need! You then post updates into circles and only those in the circle have visibility of posts you make (you can alternatively post publicly for all to see). People can, of course be in multiple circles. The 'built around privacy' aspect of Google+ gives me more faith than facebook's half-assed approach.
So now I'm going to get to the point - what's it for?. Well at the moment most of the posts people are making on there are about google+ itself, and that's a good thing. There are people playing with the technology, experimenting, discovering things, providing feedback, and not polluting it with inane nonsense at the moment. That's the point of having this test phase. But where will it go? Where will Google+ be in a year's time? Let's look at it's main competition:
Does it replace facebook? Potentially. xkcd think it can :) it will depend on how the things corresponding to facebook groups and pages work out. And of course I haven't seen any support for building apps on the platform as yet - there is no API at the time of writing. Maybe Google (perfectly reasonably) want to stay out of that arena of authorising potentially dodgy games and leave that minefield to facebook (how many of you block farmville posts?) and hope Facebook dies a death like due to such nonsense in a similar way to when MySpace got silly allowing too much control over profiles and made them messy. I wouldn't blame them, although it would be a revenue stream, and Google is a business. And a lot of people use such games from Zynga and others and are likely not to move to a platform that doesn't have them. I wonder what deals are being done under the covers right now for Google+ app developers. For me I'm personally happy with how Google have implemented their facebook alternative and I'd absolutely switch to this as a replacement.
Does it replace twitter? That's a harder question to answer. I've seen people say they'd use it as an alternative to twitter but I'm not so sure. I use facebook and twitter in completely different ways, and the people I connect to on each are not the same. Twitter is for high volume public thoughts so I post several times a day, and if you miss something, who cares? Facebook is more of a platform where I restrict posts and more likely to read every post from people. The use cases are different. I think different people choosing to use it differently could be a problem. if they were to implement 'public circles' (see later on) then I'd consider a switch. For now, I wouldn't want to 'spam' my family/close friends with all my twitter stuff (which would of course have to be public) so I won't be considering it to replace twitter any time soon.
In the case of twitter I also use it to discover new people in a way I wouldn't on facebook.That's a massive reason why it's been so successful. Google+ feels somewhere in between the more public twitter and more "intimate" facebook. My concern is that I wouldn't want my relatively sedate 'facebook-like' stream polluted with my 'thought of the moment' public posts that I put on twitter. Maybe that's a reason to use Buzz, but I really don't want to throw all my social networking to one company. But you can't dismiss the fact that Buzz hasn't gone away and lurks in Google+ as a tab on your profile and unlike twitter, Buzz has a cleaner reply mechanism for enabling comment threads. Bottom line is that, at least for now, I see Google+ more as a locked down potential facebook replacement, which is something we really need, and I don't see me giving up on twitter any time soon.
As a final word I'll mention this article on the google+ killer feature - once you're in it shows up on all the bars across the top of the screen on google sites. it's a good way of trapping you in, and so far facebook is about the only other site that's been able to do that.
This should possibly be a separate blog entry but here are some technical observations based on my use so far, most of which I've posted to Google+ since I started using it so I'll include links:
- When you use the mobile site you have to accept T&C that allows them to take your location. Surely it's down to whether I allow the web browser to send it - odd that it's a separate acceptance point in the T&C, and why can't I decline and still use the mobile UI?
- There isn't an option to post to 'all of circle A but exclude B' where B is a specific person or other circle. You might want to hide posts from specific people e.g. when planning a surprise for them, but at the moment you'd have to duplicate the circle without those people.but I'd rather have facebook's exclude list - this was an issue I raised against diaspora. Google plus has "+add more people" for visibility, so "-exclude people" wouldn't be too much more complex. I've fed this back to them.
- There doesn't appear to be an equivalent of "Post to someone's wall". Maybe that's good for privacy but sometimes it's useful to be able to do it. You can still tag someone in a post just to them, of course but it's nice to have the facebook option of letting their friends see and comment on posts you've made to them. Maybe google consider it too open for abuse though.
- It's a bit of a shame not having an easy to remember URL for your stream. A shortened version of mine is in the header of this blog (it's a link after my twitter ID although it's quite hidden in blue on blue!) whereas on twitter/fb you have the top level site followed by your username. I assume this is to avoid publicising your email address so is an anti-spam measure but it's still a bit.
- I think it could do with 'public circles' which are shown on your profile that people can add THEMSELVES to. I can't know what every 'follower' will be interested in, so if I publicise that I like Motor racing and mobile technology I'd like to create circles of those (so non-interested people don't get spam) but also allow THEM to choose whether to follow those posts.
- The 'feedback' bug reporting system is quite cool. When you bring it up you can cut & paste a screen shot to include in the bug report. Really simple to use and a great feature to have in a bug system!
- I'm still in two minds about the 'reshare' privacy issues. There was an initial concern that you could 'reshare' someone else's post in your feed and set the privacy to 'public'. I think that's just the privacy fanatics going a bit nuts. You can still cut and paste or take a screenshot after all so is there really any point in restricting? Anyway, for now this "privacy loophole" has now been closed and you can only 'reshare' to specific circles. We'll see if that's retained. Compare to twitter, where a protected account can't be usefully retweeted, but you can use the old style "RT" to replicate the content into your own separate post i.e. "cut & paste".
- [ADDED: 31 July 2011] The new black google bar at the top of many google pages is also at the top of iGoogle and lets you get to G+ easily. But once you're there, there's no navigation link to get back to iGoogle like there is for gmail/docs/photos etc. Give me an ig link on the top please.
- [ADDED: 31 July 2011] If the public circles idea was implemented, you could have a 'blog' circle that would let you categories specific posts as long term 'blog' entries and potentially encourage new people into blogging more in a fairly lightweight way than they're used to. G+ already has the ability to edit posts, and have good comment threads like any more mature blogging system. I'd like to be able to click on someone's 'blog circle' and see the 'meaty' posts that they've made. Facebook have tried this with 'Notes' but I've never seen it catch on because it feels like more of a bolt-on rather thanintegrated naturally.
[EDIT: 31 July 2011] With a month's worth of use my top 3 'wish list' from the above are (1) Public circles (2) navigating back to iGoogle (3) "A but exclude B" posting. With those implemented I'd be ancouraging everyone onto iGoogle now
Of course some, or all, of these may have changed by the time you read this since the product is in a trial period. I might update this blog with more issues as I find them!