If for no other reason, the excitement around Google+ is warranted because it demonstrates Google's commitment to doing social right. After experiments-gone-awry by the names of Wave, Buzz and Orkut, Google is back in the game with a product -- or "project" as the company prefers to call it -- that is hot. G+ is in such high demand that, after they opened the floodgates of invitations the other night, Google had to turn people away the next morning because of what the company called "insane demand."
Google prefers "project" to "product" because G+ is a work in progress. The potential of Google+ is that it represents an amalgamation of Google tools, including Gchat, Picasa, YouTube, Video Chat, Buzz, +1, and Search. As Google tools become more modular (or widgetized), G+ may integrate them to help aggregate social activity, news, and friends. G+ can be the foundation on which Google builds the future of the social web. If they do that, the competition should take note.
As you would expect from Google, G+ offers plenty of fun web technology to play with. The ability to drag and drop friends into "circles" is ahead of its time, and more user-friendly than Twitter's Lists or Facebook's Friend Lists. And the tool was not made without a touch of whimsy, such as turning friends into a cloud of smoke upon removing them from a Circle.
From a design perspective, G+ is also beating out its competitors at Twitter and Facebook. For instance, there is no indication that users of G+ will have to interact with the tool through intermediary products like HootSuite and Tweetdeck. The layout of G+ is super-streamlined and unembellished with an overwhelming supply of suggestions and features.
Of the few features on offer, perhaps the most fun is "Hangouts," which permits users to video chat with up to 10 friends. In addition to the design improvements, Hangouts bests Facebook's Group Chats simply because your Gmail contacts are vastly superior to your Facebook friends. Like Hangouts, other G+ features also integrate well with preexisting Google products. For instance, photos rely on Picasa and videos play on YouTube. I am withholding judgment on "Sparks," though, which appears to be a thumbnail recommendation engine. (Others, however, are calling it perhaps the most underrated feature of G+.)
- Jesse Thomas