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Last week, Google rolled out a beta of its highly-anticipated new social networking platform, Google+. Reaction to the launch so far has been mainly positive, with praise for the app’s design and features. But having played with Google+ over the last few days, I think that it may find a home in a somewhat unexpected market: the workplace. While Facebook and Twitter have been massively successful in the consumer space, they’re not really suited for use in the workplace, as they make it difficult to keep personal and work-related information separate, and few companies would be happy about the possibility of potentially confidential information being broadcast to the world. Google, however, has produced an app that’s much more suited for use in the workplace by building Google+ around its Circles feature, which enables users to limit the sharing of information to specific groups of people, and by incorporating some very useful built-in collaboration features.
Google+ is a lot like Facebook, offering users the ability to connect to other users, post status updates, share links and photos, and so on. But where it differs from apps like Facebook is its use of Circles, which allows users to define groups of contacts and then only share specific updates and other information with that group. Circles are effectively easy-to-understand privacy controls. They can be set up via an intuitive drag-and-drop interface, and there doesn’t appear to be any limitations on the number of them you can define. You could, for instance, have a Circle for all of your work colleagues, a Circle for your team and then also create ad hoc Circles for project teams as required. This ability to easily control who you share specific pieces of information with is powerful, and very useful in the workplace: you may only want to send an update regarding the status or a project to only those colleagues working on that project, for example. Facebook has tried to give users a similar degree of control over contact management with its Lists feature, but it’s clunky and nowhere near as well-implemented or as central to the experience as Circles is; while Google + is effectively built on top of Circles, Facebook’s Lists feature feels like an afterthought. As Google+ is a general-purpose social networking tool, a user can connect with any other Google+ user. This means that, unlike with many of the private enterprise social networking apps like Yammer, Jive, tibbr, Socialtext and Salesforce Chatter, people can use the app to easily communicate and collaborate with people outside of their organization — contractors or clients, for example.
Hangouts is Google+’s built-in multi-user video chat tool. It allows users to chat with up to ten people simultaneously and it’s really well implemented. Unlike other video chat apps, where you generally have to ping the other people you want to chat with on IM or email, get them to open their video chat client and then connect with them, Hangouts enables you to “hang out” in a video chat room, advertising your availability to chat to your contacts. If no-one else is around, you can leave it running in the background. It’s all browser-based, so the user doesn’t have to fire up another app, and allows for much more spontaneous and effortless collaboration than other video chat app I’ve tried. I think it could potentially come close to replicating an “in office” experience for remote teams, allowing for the virtual equivalent of wandering up to a colleague’s desk to discuss a problem, or the traditional “water cooler” social chat. Hangouts has an intuitive interface: Whoever is currently talking is highlighted in the large central window, with everyone else displayed in strip of smaller windows underneath. In my testing, it works really well, with little lag. There’s a built-in IM feature for sharing links and so on, and also a YouTube feature, which enables users to share the watching of YouTube videos (which is neat, but probably not all that useful in the workplace). As Om noted, Hangouts is group video chat done right. It’s much better than Skype’s somewhat clunky group video chat feature, it’s free, and as it’s standards-based, it could be integrated into other applications, too (if you’re curious, Janko has written an interesting overview of the standards-based tech used to build the service). Hangouts isn’t Google+’s only collaboration tool. It also features a built-in group texting feature called Huddle (see Stacey’s review here), which is currently only available on Android handsets.
Another great feature that differentiates Google+ from Facebook is Sparks. It lets users define an interest (robotics, for example), and then trawls the web looking for articles related to that interest, making it easy for users to find relevant articles to share. This could be useful in the workplace for research or keeping abreast of industry news, for example, helping users to stay up-to-date with topics of interest to them and their team, and then easily share and discuss any particularly interesting bits of information.
While Google + is well designed and has a lot of really great features, it’s not the perfect enterprise social networking tool just yet; it’s got a way to go before companies like Yammer and Salesforce should begin to really worry. Firstly, as Mathew noted, it needs users. Google+ is still in beta, but even after it launches to the general public, even if Google is massively successful in getting new users to sign up it will be a while before Google+ can get anywhere near rivaling Facebook’s numbers. Secondly, Google+ isn’t yet set up to work with Google Apps accounts, which precludes a large number of potential enterprise users from using it with their main work email accounts. However, it’s probably safe to assume that Google+ will be made available to users of Google Apps soon — and the prospect of integrated social features in Google Apps powered by Google+ is a tantalizing one. Finally, although Circles is an easy to use and intuitive way for users to determine who they share specific bits of share information with, it’s not perfect: there have already been reported privacy concerns with Google+ and Circles, with updates being forwarded on (or “reshared”) beyond the original Circle it was intended for. Google is being responsive to the concerns and is now addressing that particular issue, so hopefully any lingering privacy concerns will be ironed out before the product sees a more widespread release. Of course, as Jess noted earlier today, the success of enterprise social networking tools depends on much more than just the technology itself. But Google’s latest foray into the social space is very well designed and offers a a great range of features. Assuming the company can tackle any privacy concerns that pop up and can persuade enough users to join the service and give it the initial traction it needs, Google+ could well become entrenched in the workplace.