When I wrote about Google+ last week I was under no delusions that I’d be able to get myself into the program before they started doing their open testing. Like Google Wave and Gmail before it I didn’t have any friends who were in on the first round invites so I put my name in the email form and resigned to come back to it after all the hubbub had died down. One of my clever friends (who has recently become a fellow blogger) hit up someone giving out invites on Twitter and was himself granted invites upon joining in. Since my entire group of friends was chomping at the bit to get in and have a go with Google’s latest toy we all jumped at the chance to get in on the action, and I spent the weekend having a fiddle with it.
The landing page of Google+ looks eerily similar to that of Facebook’s, with a very familiar 3 column layout that has all the major components in approximately the same positions. This is a decidedly non-Google way of presenting a service but it appears that this will be the way they go about it from now on since the same styling has made its way onto the Google search engine. I’m definitely a fan of it since the layout is clean, uncluttered and isn’t yet ridden with ads. I’m sure eventually it will start getting ads much like Facebook has as there’s a lot of real estate on the right hand side that’s just sitting there unused currently, right in the same spot that Facebook has its ads.
As part of the Google+ implementation it looks like at least one other service, Google Talk, received a small upgrade in functionality. I’m a big user of the chat function that’s long been available through Gmail (mostly because all my friends use it) but the experience on there has never been that great. Unless you’re on an unfettered connection to the outside world the chat would likely drop out at least once or twice a day and the only way to get back into a group conversation was to be added back into it. Now it seems to be able to remember sessions quite well and I was able to access the same conversation in Gmail and Plus simultaneously, even on different computers. Having the concept of rooms would still be an awesome feature to have, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
The circles idea is an interesting one, albeit one that I don’t have much use for currently. Circles are just groups of people you can create on the fly and they’re only visible to you. There’s 4 default groups that take their inspiration from the other major social networks (Friends/Family = Facebook, Acquaintances = LinkedIn, Following = Twitter) but they’re really just there to get you started. Since at the moment the only people I know on there are my tech enthusiast friends I’ve really only needed a single group. Should Google offer an API that will allow me to consolidate all my social doings in one spot I can see this being a very handy feature but until such a time I get a feeling that this feature (and by extension much of the benefits of Google+) will be lost on me.
Two features I didn’t get much of a chance to play with were Hangouts and Sparks, although a couple of my mates gave me a rundown on how they work. Hangouts are basically Skype in a web browser which is pretty amazing by itself but it’s also meant to make group conversations more useful by making whoever is doing the talking the main person in the Hangout window. I’ve had a quick fiddle with the Sparks bit but all it seems to do is search the web with the keywords you plug into it, generating a stream of on-topic articles that may or may not be of interest to you. For kicks I tried video games and got everything from recent articles to reviews dating back a year. The curated feeds that are displayed when you first click into Sparks might be better, but none of them really aligned to my interests.
At the same time Google released Plus they also debuted the accompanying Android application, which has just as much polish as the web based product. It functions pretty much as expected with the vast majority of functionality available. Strangely however the Huddle feature, basically group messaging ala Beluga et al, is a standalone application. Huddle was up and down over the time I was using it but when it worked it was very usable, however it lacks the maturity of other group messaging apps as there’s no media or location sharing built in. Additionally the lack of a web interface for Huddle feels like an oversight on Google’s part since that would make it infinitely more usable, especially if it was available through Google Talk.
Overall I’m quite impressed with Google+ as a service and so are a good portion of my friends. However only a fifth of my direct social circle has made it onto Google+ and with no API to speak of yet (although one is coming) it’s really just another curiosity for the time being. Once there’s a bit more integration with other services and the user base hits critical mass I could see it being the one stop place for my social networking needs. The hardest challenge that Google+ faces isn’t technical however, it will be attempting to break the stranglehold that Facebook holds on the market. If there’s anyone who’s capable of doing this it’s Google, but even they are going to have a hard time drawing users away from the place where all their friends still reside.
It’s really easy to fall into the trap of trying to build something you think is simple that ends up being a complicated mess. Us engineers are amongst the most common offenders in this regard, often taking a simple idea and letting the feature creep run out of hand until the original idea is coated in 10 layers of additional functionality. I’d say that this is partly due to our training as modular design and implementation was one of the core engineering principles that was drill into me from day 1 although to be fair they also taught us how quickly the modular idea fell apart if you took it too far. There’s also the innate desire to cram as much functionality as you can into your product or service as that would make it appear more appealing to the end user, however that’s not always the case.
When Geon was starting out I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do: see what was going on in a certain location. That in itself is a pretty simple idea and the first revisions reflected that, although that was probably due to my lack of coding experience more than anything else. As time went on I got distracted by other things that forced me away from my pet project and upon return I had one of those brainwaves for improving Geon in ways I had not yet considered. This lead to the first version that actually had a login and a whole host of other features, something I was quite proud of. However it lacked focus, was confusing to use and ultimately whilst it satisfied some of the core vision it wasn’t anything more than a few RSS feeds tied together in a silverlight front end with a badly coded login and messaging framework hidden under the deluge of other features.
Something needed to change and thus Lobaco was born.
Increasingly I’m seeing that simplicity is the key to creating an application that users will want to use. On a recent trip to Adelaide my group of friends decided to use Beluga to co-ordinate various aspects of the trip. Beluga really only does one thing, group messaging, but it does it so well and in such a simple way that we constantly found ourselves coming back to it. Sure many of the functions are already covered off by say SMS or an online forum but having a consistent view for all group members that just plain worked made organizing our band of bros that much easier. It’s this kind of simplicity that keeps me coming back to Instagr.am as well, even though there’s similar levels of functionality included in the Twitter client (apart from the filters).
Keeping an idea simple all sounds like it would be easy enough but the fact that so many fail to do so show how hard it is to refine a project down to its fundamental base in order to develop a minimum viable product. Indeed this is why I find time away from developing my projects to be nearly as valuable as the time I spend with them as often it will get me out of the problem space I’ve been operating in and allow me to refine the core idea. I’ve also found myself wanting simple products in lieu of those that do much more just because the simple ones tend to do it better. This has started to lead me down the interesting path of finding things I think I can do better by removing the cruft from a competing product and I have one to test out once I get the first iteration of the Lobaco client out of the way.
I guess that will be the true test to see if simplicity and focus are things customers desire, and not just geeks like me.