Google+, Google’s most recent foray into social networks, certainly generates a fair share of hype, but does it live up to the praise and expectations? After just a few days of playful testing, I must admit that I’m pretty impressed with what I’ve seen so far. Given enough time and development resources, Google+ might actually put a lot of pressure on its competitors – Facebook and Twitter included.

The service is currently undergoing what Google calls a “limited field test“, so further improvements and additions to Google+ are probably to be expected before it goes public. At the moment, Google+ is not yet openly accessible, but there are already quite a few users who were lucky enough to get hold of an account before the distribution of invites was suspended.

Core features: Circles, the Stream and Hangout

The entire feature set offered by Google+ revolves around what Google calls your circles. Even though circles are little more than a way to group your contacts, the fancy UI and the fact that they are used consequently throughout Google+ make them a lot more useful than one might think at first. As the name implies, you are encouraged to group fellow users into different circles based on your relationship with them (friends, colleagues, family or whatever else you can think of).

Since some of your colleagues might also be your friends, it is of course possible to add the same person to multiple circles in order to express the different facets of your relationships explicitly. To this end, Google+ also supports the creation of additional, arbitrarily named circles as well as removal of the circles that are provided per default. Others will be notified once you add them to one of your circles, but since your circles are private and relationships in Google+ are asymmetric, they will not be able to tell which circle you’ve put them into and they are also not required to return the favor by in turn adding you to one of their circles. What’s exciting about this way of modeling relationships is that it is flexible enough to support mutual sharing as well as Twitter-style unidirectional following – definitely one of the conceptual strong points of Google+ so far.

All the bookkeeping pays off as soon as you’re trying to find something in the stream of content shared by other people. Just like in Facebook, posts, links and photos show up in a more or less chronological order, but – and this will be more and more important once the network grows – you can easily filter the stream based on the circle you’re currently interested in. Circles can also be used to limit the target audience for the things you share yourself. For every single item you post, you are required to specify explicitly the people that should be able to see it. This can either be done by choosing one or more circles or, if a higher granularity is required, setting the post’s visibility on a per-person basis. It’s even possible to add individual email addresses for people who are not (yet) on Google+ and to prohibit re-sharing of your content by others (though people can obviously use other means to betray your trust if they really want). Surprisingly, the UI for all that is still simple enough for casual users to understand, so accidental sharing will hopefully be kept to a minimum.

Probably included as an incentive for people to give Google+ a try, the stream tab includes a big red green button labeled "Start a hangout". Hangout is just the fancy name of Google+’ group video chat, which can be used for a quick private conversation (like Google Chat’s video call feature), or a straight out video chat party with up to 10 people connected simultaneously. By default, the hangout window shows small video thumbnails of all participants just below a big video widget that automatically switches to the person that is currently speaking. Thus far I’ve only been in a hangout with just three other users, so I don’t really know how busy it gets when the maximum number of participants is reached, but it seems that automatic switching and echo cancellation work well enough to support that number of people – at least if participants with particularly audible surroundings choose to temporarily mute their mics. Speaking of muting: Everyone in a hangout can mute every other’s mic globally, which opens up some possibilities for abuse by ill-behaved pranksters. But since you can restrict access to a hangout to individual circles or people, that likely won’t turn into an actual problem.

Unfortunately, I can’t really say anything about Huddle (Google+’ group messaging feature for Android phones) or Sparks (the built-in news aggregator designed to "spark" new conversations), since I’ve not yet played around with them extensively.

Initial verdict

Even though Google+ is still in its infancy, I already like it a lot more than the convoluted mess that is Facebook. Everything that’s already in place works as advertised, but there is also an incredible and yet barely tapped potential for integration with other services. The almost seamless ability to share photos from Picasa Web Albums is hopefully just a tiny glimpse at what will be possible once Google+ starts talking to other Google and non-Google products. Sharing items from within Google Reader, using circles to manage your contacts in Gmail and aggregating/feeding stuff from and to other social networks like Twitter, Status.net or even Diaspora are just a few features that I would really love to see in the near future. I guess it’s also a safe bet that Google Buzz will sooner or later be merged into Google+, since functionality wise, Buzz is just a subset of what Google+ will soon have to offer.

Of course, there are also a few things that most likely won’t make it, even though I would certainly appreciate them a lot: Google always had an aversion to threaded commenting, for example (they don’t even support proper threading in Gmail even though mail conversations are inherently threaded), so my hopes are not exactly high that this will be in Plus anytime soon.