July 12th, 2011
Seems like everybody’s writing Google+ reviews these days, but most of the ones I’ve found seem to be fluff pieces. I haven’t used it long, but have some initial impressions to share.
First, an analogy. Facebook reminds me of the sleazy guy selling stuff from his car down the street. They do things like change privacy defaults when they think it’s good for Facebook, rather than good for you.
Google+ reminds me of an Apple product. It’s beautiful, easy to learn, but locks everything down and is lacking some critical features. So here goes with the details.
I think that this can be best summed up by: it’s not Facebook. Facebook has, perhaps, set an incredibly low bar but still, this holds. Facebook is the only website I can ever remember using that changes things so much, so often, and so completely that I keep having this feeling of not knowing how to do things. Try maintaining a Facebook page or two and you’ll especially feel my pain then. But even the basics: how many times have I accidentally posted a partial comment because I pressed Enter to start a new paragraph (that has only been the button used for that for, hmm, let’s see now, decades), and instead it posted the comment. Principle of least surprise, anyone?
Google+ has a simple and, on the surface anyway, intuitive interface. However, it does get muddy; more on that below.
I’m going to spend a lot more space on “the bad” below, but don’t let that diminish my excitement about having a viable alternative to Facebook. I am keen to get rid of that monster.
I’ll start of this section with the fact that Google+ is a tightly-controlled walled garden. There is no way to take a copy of your status updates, comments, etc. and back them up with your own devices. If your Google account goes away, so do all your updates about your kids’ first words. Facebook does have this feature these days. It has broken half the time, but it exists, works, and I use it. Twitter doesn’t have the feature built in, but its API makes it pretty easy; you could easily use my twidge program to do this, for instance.
But whatever you put in G+ stays in G+. There is no autoposting it to twitter or Facebook,
no backups, nothing. I’m disappointed in that, given Google’s prior attitude about openness to individual data ownership. (Update 7/12/2011: There is a way to get a backup, which I hadn’t noticed; see comments below.)
Almost as bad, there’s also no way to get data in. So I now have identi.ca, twitter, Facebook, and now also G+ accounts. When I post an item in identi.ca, it autoposts to twitter, and then it autoposts from twitter to Facebook. Handy – one place to notify people of my public activities. My uploads to Flickr and blog posts also auto-post to Facebook, so people I’m friends with there get a picture of what I’m doing outside of Facebook without me manually having to link it in.
Not so with G+. There is no way to even add an RSS feed for my blog to auto-post to G+ as there is with Facebook. If you use G+, the only way to get stuff into it is with a keyboard.
Poor integration with other Google apps is also an issue. G+ is nowhere near Google’s first social app. They also have Blogger, Google Reader, Buzz, Gmail, etc. So here’s the rub. These aren’t integrated well, and when they have tried to integrate them, they’ve done an exceedingly poor job of it.
As an example: Buzz is a twitter-like service for posting updates. Very similar to what G+ does, right? Well, the best you can do is link your Buzz account to a separate tab on your profile. You can’t even have your Buzz updates flow straight into G+, from what I can see. You have a separate list of followers in Buzz from G+. Reader is even worse; it has a sharing feature, but it’s not G+ aware, so it goes to a reader inbox.
But what takes the cake is the integration with Gmail Contacts. Sounds easy? Not entirely. When you add someone to G+, apparently it sometimes links the record with their entry in Contacts. And the help gives you the handy warning that when you remove them from G+, you have the option of removing them from Contacts, which could impact what you see on a mobile device. It is unclear what happens when it doesn’t link the record, or how it decides which record to link (some people have more than one person in a family sharing phone numbers and email addresses, for instance.)
One very nice feature of G+ is you can add email addresses, even if they aren’t G+ members. Then when you post updates to the circle you’ve added them to, G+ offers to send them an email with an update. Very handy.
Except the undocumented part is that if you select “Your circles” (meaning all your circles), rather than individually ticking the box by each circle, they don’t get the email. And they also don’t get it if you set it Public. You have to select their specific circle, which is a significant difference from how people with G+ accounts are treated.
And that’s just an example. There are a ton of things that work one way 95% of the time, but have non-obvious exceptions. Some of these exceptions are documented in the help, and some aren’t.
I’m still confused about the integration with Picasa. G+ help says that you can upload unlimited numbers of photos for free (though they will be downscaled at a certain point). Picasa has definite storage limits. But G+ uploads are showing up in Picasa. Do I really get free storage by uploading to the same place via a different tool? Very odd.
And finally, a gripe about web standards. I’ve been using Firefox/Iceweasel 3.5, which came out in Debian squeeze and is still supported there. It is also pretty darn new by corporate IT standards. And Google Plus refuses to let me log in with it, saying it’s “incompatible.” Perhaps it can’t do some fancy animation, but then again I don’t really care. Seems Google has forgotten the old RFC adage: be liberal in what you accept and conservative in what you generate. If you can detect that my browser won’t animate something right, then you could give me a stripped-down version of the page rather than an error message.