Google has begun beta testing a new social network called Google+. At the moment it’s only available to a handful of beta testers, but when it rolls out to the public Google+ will represent the search company’s biggest foray into the social space. Google has dipped its toe into social waters before with tools such as Latitude and Buzz. But Google+ is the closest thing you’re going to get to a Facebook competitor from Google.
Just moments after sending out the first invitations to the service Google launched an official app for Android. It doesn’t offer all of the feature you get when visiting plus.google.com in a desktop web browser, but it does have a clean, easy to use interface and support for one killer feature: Google+ for Android can automatically upload photos and videos from your mobile device as soon as you finish shooting them. Automatic uploads are opt-in though, so if you don’t want to share your pictures with the world you don’t have to.
The mobile app also supports location-based checkins and geotagging for your posts.
Update: Google has finally released an iOS app for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. It offers most of the features you’ll find in the Android app, but it doesn’t support automatic photo uploads.
There’s no iOS app yet, but Google has rolled out a mobile web site which offers most of the features you get from a native app. The only things missing are support for native notifications and automatic media uploads. You can still see notifications using the mobile web app though — you just have to actively click on the notifications link.
The Stream view shows you the latest updates from people you’re connected to on Google+. Messages are sorted chronologically — but any time someone leaves a new comment on a message, that item jumps back to the top of your timeline. In other words, if you follow Robert Scoble, expect to see his messages dominate the top of your Stream indefinitely.
There’s also a neat feature that lets you see messages from people near your physical location. Just swipe from left to right to see this view. It works exactly the same on the web app as the native app.
The icons at the top of the screen let you create a new post or check-in to a nearby location. The native app also has a camera icon for snapping new photos or uploading photos from your camera roll.
Currently the mobile web app doesn’t support photo uploads even from the post window.
The photos sections look virtually identical in both the native and web apps — although neither is nearly as attractive as the desktop browser view which lets you interact with images from the photo wall.
One of the key things that separates Google+ from other social networks is the “circles” paradigm. On the one hand, Circles are a lot like lists on Facebook or Twitter. But Google’s social network makes it very easy to set up circles and you can use a desktop browser to literally drag-and-drop your contacts into different groups.
Then when you want to send a message to a specific group, you just add the circles you want to share with. You can also tap any circle to view messages only from people in that group. The idea is that you should be easily able to control who sees your messages and whose messages you see. You can assign contacts to as many circles as you like.
The native app and web app work pretty much the same way here. You tap the Circles icon from the home screen and you can see a list of your circles. You can also view a list of all of your contacts from the People button or get suggestions for people you might want to add.
Once you click on a group you can either view the members of that circle or see the latest posts or photos from those people. Tap on any post or picture and you can add a comment or +1 it, which is basically Google’s version of Facebook’s “like.”
From the Profile view you can see your latest posts and photos (including any items you’ve already uploaded to Picasa), as well as your public profile including any biographical details or contact information you’ve made available. If you’ve already set up a Google Profile, this information will already be available the first time you use Google+.
Notifications are handled much the same way in the native and web apps — but the key difference is that you can configure the Android app to send notices to your phone or tablet’s notification bar. You can also select ringtones or have your device vibrate when a new notification comes in.
To view your notifications from within the app, just go to the home screen and swipe up from the bottom. The web app doesn’t have a swipe-for-notifications feature, but you will see an icon showing you how many unread notes are available. Just tap on it to see the latest.
Google’s native Android app does have one more feature that’s not available from the web app. It’s called Huddle, and basically it’s a group messaging feature that lets you set up little chat rooms with a select group of friends.
Some of the best features of Google+ are still desktop-only, such as the ability to create and edit circles by dragging and dropping your contacts. The desktop version of Google+ also supports “hangouts,” which let you create multi-user video chat rooms on the fly. I also haven’t found a way to edit my profile from the mobile app.
But there are some pretty awesome mobile-only features as well, including automatic image uploads, automatic geolocation, and integration with your phone’s notification system. Some of those features aren’t available in the web app, but even though there aren’t yet native apps for iOS or other non-Android platforms, the mobile web version of Google+ does give you most of the tools you’d want to keep up with the new social network while on the go. For a beta product, I’m pretty impressed with the native and web apps Google has released.