It's easy to overlook the business impact of Google's new social network, Google+, at least for the moment. Google+, launched June 28, is still somewhat invite-only, and despite the overwhelmingly positive reviews, even the earliest adopters are still figuring out how it fits into their online and social lives.
But ignore the wider implications of Google+ at your professional peril. The future of Google+ as a whole is unclear, but there are pieces and planned features that could definitely disrupt the way you communicate and work with others. Here are four key points to ponder:
Looking for a few tips on getting started with Google+? Check out CNET's 7 Google Essentials.
Google+ Hangouts are group video chat done right
If you want to impress someone who thinks big about the social web, you'd tell them about the unique privacy and posting features in Google+, or perhaps the intuitive "Circles" interface for separating, say, your bosses and college friends. But if you want to really impress just about anyone, show them Hangouts.
Hangouts are group video chats that don't require anyone to check their Skype settings. You choose a Circle of contacts (or create one), then enter the room when you want to be available for video or text chatting. Whenever someone is speaking, the screen shows their video feed, and then switches to whoever inevitably cuts them off. It's done in a browser, it doesn't require Flash, and it is, as Om Malik put it, something Skype will grow to hate, especially as businesses paying money for such services get interested.
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Google+ upgrades other Google Apps you're already using
Picasa Web Albums was, until last week, a competent photo-storage and sharing service that didn't have the reach, popularity, or style of Flickr and other photo networks, let alone the up-and-coming mobile photo services. But to those using Google+, Picasa is now the backend of a seamless image flow. Take a photo on your Android device, and Google+ (with your permission) automatically uploads the photo in the background to a private Picasa album. When you're looking for something to share, you simply pluck a photo from that bucket of recent snaps, and everything else can be easily organized into albums with easy sharing tools.
It's no far reach to say Google+ will likely tie itself into Gmail, Calendar, and other Google Apps services that businesses use. Whether Google "hammers" it in or simply makes the integration too good to pass up, it's likely their social service will actually become a value-added "plus" to Google services, not just an additional noisemaker.
Businesses will have "Pages" much faster than with Facebook
As Facebook came to prominence, businesses and brands were ushered through a twisty road with few signs or markers. First they were just like regular people, and could only have a few thousand "Friends." They could create "apps" instead, but the platform viability was uncertain. Finally, they were offered "Pages," with just a few restrictions, but the transitions weren't always smooth.
If Google wants to present Google+ as a social experience that has learned from its progenitors, business profiles is a rich, undiscovered area. Google is already working on "pages", and if the actual-person experience is anything to go by, there's a good chance businesses won't be allowed to be their own worst enemies and intrude too far into users' experiences, while still keeping a presence.
Much, much better contact management
The lazy way to describe the Circles in Google+ is as the equivalent of Facebook's lists. That's misleading, though, because Facebook's lists are remarkably painful to use, and the company might not even believe in them.
Circles is a drag-and-drop way to classify your contacts without becoming a pro-am librarian. If Jerry is both your former sales representative and someone you see socially around your city, you drag him into the "Widget Co." and "Wichita" Circles, but keep your human resources rep only in "Widget Co." That way, the things you see in your social stream make sense in context, and the stuff you share only reaches the right eyes. You can follow anyone, but whether they follow you back is up to them. It's a good harmony between Twitter's asynchronous and public relationships, and Facebook's dorm-like sharing networks.
From a social and sharing standpoint, Circles seems to work for Google's early adopter crowd. But it's not hard to see how LinkedIn might be threatened by such an easy network management tool, and how tools like the video chat Hangouts, the group messaging Huddles, and business-friendly pages could create some smart synergy for those with many networks to manage. And, heck, anything that makes managing your Google Contacts more intuitive should get some kind of warm welcome.
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.