Google+ for iPhone

After Friendster, MySpace, Faceook, and Twitter, does the world really need another social network? If you’re asking Google, the answer would seem to be a resounding: Sure.

Google’s new social site is called Google+. It mixes Facebook’s posting/commenting/over-sharing paradigm with Twitter’s approach to one-way following relationships, sprinkles in some unique Google nuance, and sautées at 350 degrees for an hour. Of course, no social networking experience is complete without the requisite iPhone app; Google released its official Google+ app in July.

The main screen of the app offers five icons to navigate the Google+ experience: Stream, Huddle, Photos, Profile, and Circles. At the bottom of that screen sits a small Notifications status line; it updates (and turns red) when new alerts arrive. There’s also a gear icon at the top left that you might expect would let you configure Google+ settings, but that’s only because you haven’t yet read the next half of this sentence: The icon exposes a menu with links to in-app help, a privacy policy, the terms of service, but no options to tweak.

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The Stream is where most of Google+’s core magic happens. It’s akin to your Facebook news feed, or your Twitter timeline, or your MySpace—well, I don’t know, but since neither you nor I use MySpace, it doesn’t matter much. The Stream on the iPhone is easy to scroll through. Google wisely condenses lengthy posts and comment threads so that you can scroll from one post to the next more quickly; if you deem a given comment thread or lengthier post as worthy of further attention, you simply tap into it to read everything.

Photos in Google+ are cleverly organized. The app breaks them down into four sections: photos from your Circles, photos from your Picasa albums, photos from your iPhone, and photos (uploaded by anyone) in which you’ve been tagged. You can swipe through photos quickly, and tell at a glance which photos have been commented upon, read comments, and post your own. You can also, of course, quickly share photos from your iPhone.

All of your Google+ contacts are organized into Circles. You can create as many Circles as you’d like, and you can put the same person into more than one Circle. I might, for example, tuck certain Macworld colleagues in both my Coworkers and Friends circles, while certain in-laws may score a spot solely in the Family circle. Finding friends and dragging them into Circles is more eye-candy laden (and thus more fun) in the desktop Web app, but the iPhone app does offer complete access to all major aspects of friend and circle management: You can create new Circles, add and remove friends from them, and search for new people.

Then there are Huddles. Huddles strike me as a bit flaky and underdeveloped in the current release of Google+, but there’s a lot of promise. Huddles essentially function as group chatrooms. You create one, add whomever you’d like to the Huddle, and then that group’s members can exchange messages. It’s akin to group MMS—complete with push alerts—but doesn’t count against your plan’s text messaging quota. That said, the feature seems a bit buggy in my testing; messages occasionally arrive out of order at first, only to re-sort themselves if you back out of the Huddle and into it again. If Google+ can match Facebook’s ubiquity, Huddles could become impressively powerful. (I’d love if they could be accessed from the desktop Web app too; so far, they can’t.)

Most of the time, the Google+ app feels fairly intuitive—you can figure out what you’re meant to do without much effort. At the same time, however, the app employs a slew of out-of-place behaviors that may leave you wondering whether Google somehow ported an Android app onto your iPhone instead: You swipe your entire stream left or right to switch between the main, Nearby, and Incoming streams. This seems like the sort of action most iOS apps would handle with tabs. When you pinch to zoom on photos, they don’t actually zoom in the way they would in most other apps; instead, your pinch rather oddly toggles between two different zoom levels. And to complete the Bizarro World experience, Google+ employs non-standard version of some common buttons. You’ll know that left-facing arrow is a Back button, but it just doesn’t look quite right.

It’s easy to compare Google+’s iPhone app to the Twitter and Facebook apps, since—while decidedly different—all three apps (and services) overlap plenty. Of the three apps, Google’s feels the webbiest, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Twitter and Facebook use their apps to create native-feeling iPhone windows into their networks; Google+ has some nice touches, but feels a lot like a well-skinned mobile-optimized website.

Whether Google’s social network will succeed is outside the realm of this review. But I’d imagine that until Google offers a desktop client—and/or a public API for developers to make their own clients—its chance of continued success is limited. Like the service itself, the iPhone app shows promise and potential. I’m intrigued to see what happens with both after a heavy helping of Google polish.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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