I am not what is known in the trade as an early adopter but for once I decided to break old habits and give something new a try. The new thing in question being Google Plus or Google+. In this post I’ll make a few observations, describe how I intend to use it and what problems it may solve.
Here is my Google+ page which is worth checking out so that the descriptions that follow in this post make sense. Click on the slide shows and the images as the places where these lead are really nice. If you want to follow me or anything else please feel free. I’ll be using the Google page for things that interest me or may interest others but that don’t warrant a post on this blog. I may link to them once a week from here but I am really not sure yet. To a large extent I’ll be making this up as I go along.
Google+ Picasa and Picnik
Most of the opinions and reviews that I’ve read to date treat Google Plus as a potential alternative or replacement for Facebook. I think that this only tells part of the story and think that the Google people see this as a replacement for just about every social aspect of the web that they do not already own. My web interests tend to revolve around images and writing about images so I have delved into this side of things a little more than others may have done. In a nutshell, Google Plus integrates its sharing, storage, editing software Picasa more or less seamlessly and Picasa in turn now integrates Picnik, a much more fully featured online editor than the one that Picasa has built in. I wrote a post about Picnik here.
The above image was edited using Picnik. More subtle editing, cropping, red eye removal, spot removal etc is very straightforward and the filters are very high quality.
Commenting on photographs on Picasa has been greatly enhanced and photographs and slideshows can now be embedded onto blogs and websites if the copyright holder, usually the photographer gives permission. From the users point of view, if they have a Google+ account they will be able to simply post a photo and apply basic edits from within Google+ but if they want to do more they can do it through Picasa and the process is surprisingly straightforward – initially I wouldn’t have known that I was in Picasa unless I looked at the address bar on my browser.
Flickr the Big Losers?
I have always liked Picasa but never adopted it fully because I preferred Piknik’s editing tools to Picasa’s own. For this reason among others, I use Flickr. Flickr incorporated Piknik even though Piknik has been owned by Google for some time now. Flickr is owned by Yahoo, a competitor to Google. See where this is going yet? I think that Google have set up an image management system that is designed to knock Flickr out of the Park. The only thing that the Google Plus setup lacks as far as I can tell is groups so expect to see some manifestation of that functionality very soon.
As stated I have used Flickr to store the photographs that I use here since the sites beginning – if you click on just about any image prior to this post it will take you to the Flickr website. I am now pretty sure, that going forward I’ll be using the Google setup for the reasons outlined below. Bear in mind that I’ve only been really focused on this issue for about a day now so anything written could well be wrong. Also Google+ itself may change as the company seem to be running with a very bottom up plan, with changes being decided by user experience rather than the old top down, rolling out specific features according to a timeline that is cast in stone.
I pay $24 a year for a usable Flickr account, and although that amount is small it is still not free, yet Yahoo have some extremely strict terms and conditions. As far as I know, if I embed one of my own photographs that I am paying to have hosted, I still have to have that image link back to Flickr, I am not allowed to kill the link or to have it linking elsewhere. I am not allowed to advertise on Flickr and certainly not allowed to use the internal email to promote anything where there might be a financial gain, however small. Flickr are pretty hot on enforcing this – which leads to the next issue which is that internal mail is obviously monitored by a humans. As far as I can tell, Google+ imposes no such restrictictions and is free.
Slideshows and Design
Both Flickr and Google+ enable slideshows of photographs to be created and embedded. Flickr’s offering is branded, ugly and not very user friendly, Google+ on the otherhand provide a slideshow that is easy on the eye, shows off the photographs and the Picasa branding, though present is very unobtrusive. This branding issue goes much further. If a visitor clicks on a photograph on this blog it is very obvious that they are on Flickr’s site with its love of its own branding and little more than a passing nod as to what shows the image off better. The Google experience is much better, plenty of white space, nice minimal feel and the user does not feel like they are being yelled at. I do have to say that I have been really lucky here. I did a bit of a redesign on this site about a month ago and it gels almost seamlessly with Picasa and Google+ and this is influencing my thinking leading to a certain amount of bias – I admit it.
Over the years I have uploaded thousands of images to Flickr as I use it as a backup of last resort. If my house blows up I do not lose all of my work. This is all well and good but if I were to ever have to retrieve my images I think that the only way to do it would be one at a time. Not only this but retrieving an image from Flickr involves a probably intentionally, complicated process ; It takes about five mouseclicks for each image. With Picasa entire albums (the equivalent of sets on Flickr) can be downloaded with one click – this is potentially a huge deal.
The major concerns about using Google+ are ones that applies to most of their products and that is control of data and potential loss of work. They are providing these goodies for free but will withdraw them if they don’t work out. For images this is not too serious an an issue as Picasa is very well established and this is where the collections will be stored. More at risk will be the on the fly camaraphone type shots that will be uploaded to Google+ only. It does have to be remembered that this is not Google’s first attempt at breaking into the wider social networking arena.
I do want to just mention Facebook which, on the surface, is the app most similar to Google+. I make no apologies for detesting Facebook, I have a couple of accounts but use them as little as possible. The fact that the company thinks that it is perfectly OK to change users privacy settings at will to test ideas is an abomination. This is not conjecture on my part it is stated policy, the ethos is do something regardless of how much it compromises its users, then change it back if enough complain. This coupled with a Kafkaesque system of opting out or in of various things makes any certainty about who will be able to see a certain file all but impossible. Google give the impression that while they may not be perfect in this regard but that they have noted the widespread dissatisfaction with Facebook and made their own system as simple as possible. Facebook is also an ugly application and though this may seem trivial compared to functionality it really does affect user experience and, all importantly, appreciation of images. Click on any of the graphics on this page to see how Google+ displays them.
The feature that has probably created the most hype is something with the pretty awful name of ‘Hangout’. It is basically a video conference function. The user can start a hangout session at any time and other users can come and go at will. Currently the maximum number of users is 10 but this is more than enough for adhoc meetings, discussions and other types of session. I can see myself using this a lot.
Unique Selling Point
Most great social networking software has one underlying principle that makes it grow exponentially. Facebook had the friending concept, Twitter had assymetry i.e. if person A followed person B there was no obligation for person B to reciprocate. Google+ uses a system whereby the user can place people in groups but the process is blind to everyone bar the user. In other words I may know that you have put me in a group but I have no idea what that group is called, the criteria or who else is in that group.
Some bloggers have stated that they intend giving up their blogs and going everything on Google+ which certainly gives an idea of the new platforms capabilities but the majority seem to regard it as a great addition but not a replacement. I see it as something that supports the blog, that is the other 9/10ths of the iceberg so to speak. Most bloggers hack together something that works for them, usually involving several different companies products, e.g. Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and Flickr. Google+ may not take the place of all of them, although in theory it could, but rather streamlines the whole process by making the supporting structure much more cohesive.
At the time of writing Google+ is an invitation only deal, although this will probably change very soon. I can give out some invites so if you want to try it out leave a comment here or send me a note using this sites contact form. If you don’t have an account you can still see anything linked from here and other places but you cannot really interact with it e.g. leave comments etc.
I have made Google+ sound hellishly complicated – it isn’t, it is really well designed and consequently very logical. It also does what all the best software does and that is it leads you in gently and then it is up to you to explore the depths and potential. A couple of hours playing around will be more than enough for most users to become proficient.
That is enough for now, I’d originally planned to write about 800 words on this subject and have already overrun by a thousand or so and it is Friday afternoon and my brain does not have another edit in reserve so here it is. The next post on this blog will be back on topic,few hundred words shorter and will not mention Google Plus, I promise.