If I chose which social networks I used based on the mobile app experience alone, I’d be all over Google+. And indeed, since rediscovering the app in its latest release, I have been much more active, with the help of my trusty iPhone. Posting updates, sharing links to interesting content, and browsing the wild array of stuff that other people post, including animated GIFs which now display in action (they didn’t before), becomes an activity all its own. The layer of technology between social media user and community has become almost invisible, in the Google+ Mobile App for iPhone. And that is how the app should be.
The major hurdle for Google+ to overcome is the community itself, which continues to attract technology enthusiasts and writers, business brands, and few others. Not that I have a problem with those particular subcultures—but where’s the diversity? Facebook is chock full of friends, ex-lovers, family members, and even the building supervisor at my co-op (friend request pending). Twitter has brought me closer to food and wine bloggers from Australia and Canada, neo-feminists, educators, and other people in communities that attract my attention. Even LinkedIn connects me to business acquaintances, former co-workers, and other professional friends with whom I no doubt would have lost contact had the online network not been in place. I’m just not sure with whom I’m supposed to be connecting on Google+.
Feats of Strength
I liked the previous version of the Google+ iPhone app, finding it easy to praise its clean, tight design. Every inch of the screen space is put to good use. If you’ve ever felt that Google was too sparse with its designs on the Web, you might see Google+ as a revelation in Google UI. The app remains easy to navigate without too many menus and unnecessary words cluttering the screen, but enough options to give you something to do and explore.
Google+ Mobile App for iPhone follows a few recently defined standards. A menu pane slides in from the left when toggled and collapses out of view just as quickly when closed. You can pull-and-release the screen to refresh it nearly anywhere in the app. The main screen shows your feed of content, with tight summaries of comments and “plusses” (similar to “likes”) appearing at the bottom.
My very favorite aspect of the app—I kid you not—is that animated gifs show up as animations right in the main feed. It may sound silly, but one of the few entertaining people I follow on Google+ posts animated gifs voraciously. In a previous version of the app, these images would show up as static pictures, no motion, no surprise, no way for me to know what made that content great. I felt left out of the conversation when others commented on the gif. A social network simply does not work effectively if some members of the community feel left out purely because of the device through which they participate. I couldn’t be more pleased to see this problem corrected.
Another more subtle effect appears on shared photos, which ever so slowly zoom out when you view the image in your news feed. The attention to detail is terrific here, although it’s less enthralling when I actually started posting photos of my own. I wanted to share an image and save it to my “profile” album, but not make it my active profile photo. I never figured out how to do it right. I also feel some lasting perplexity regarding the images that are in my Google+ account and have been there, automatically, from the time I enrolled in the service (more below in the Photos section).
From the main feed page, you can scroll through content or use icons at the bottom to post a photo, location, link, or typed text post. Choose any of these, and you won’t be limited to just that content. For example, if you add your location, you can also upload a photo and write something to go with it.
What’s in the Google+ Arena?
Besides the typical ways of interacting with any social network, Google+ puts forth a few uniquely named additions, like Hangout and Communities.
When the social network and app first landed—and let’s be clear that both arrived extraordinarily late in the game—many features and functions weren’t clear. The Web app had video chat “Hangouts,” but in the mobile app, here were only “Huddles,” or group instant messaging. Deciding how to interact with your friends (or whomever you happened to find on Google+) wasn’t straightforward, as you’d have to pick the right mode of interaction based on whether your friends were in front of a computer or a mobile device.
Many of these points of confusion are now long gone. Google has done a rather remarkable job of cleaning up the app to better reflect how people actually want to socialize. There’s now a Messenger feature–clear by its name alone–as well as a Hangout feature, which now has a video camera in its icon to more explicitly convey its use. “Circles” has been renamed “Find People,” and other minor tweaks just help to make the app work better rather than create distractions.
The Photos section in Google+ contains more than you might think. Photos are sectioned off into four groups: Instant upload, Photos from posts, Profile photos, images from any Google Blogger blogs you might have, and albums from previous Google image hosting services (like Picasa). Despite the fact that use Facebook much more often than Google+, the latter photo section blows the former’s out of the water. My history with Google is much richer, but previously, I had more control over the visibility of those images. When they popped up on Google+, I was at first taken aback. Over time, though, I’ve come to realize that the pieces were always publicly available for anyone online to connect. Google connected those dots for them when Google+ launched. I’m still not pleased that my photos all came together in one place in one instant (I would have preferred the ability to approve albums to show up on Google+), but I’m more or less over it by now.
As you browse albums, the mobile app displays a grid of thumbnail images, making it easy to view them. If people have commented on an image, the number of comments appears in the thumbnail.
Managing Friends, Following Strangers
The ease with which you can manage friends into “circles” (or groups that you can use to have more control over who sees what you share) from a smartphone is shockingly advanced. Google has laid out the app in such a way that you can scroll through a long list of possible connections—some of whom you’ll know, and some complete strangers (à la Twitter’s suggestions for whom to follow)—and add them to existing Circles or new ones that you can create on the spot.
What I love about Circles is how they let you filter your stream instantly. Twitter lets you do this with lists, which I use and also adore. In Facebook, you can hide individuals so that they never appear in your stream, but you can’t customize the stream to let you see only updates from selected people. (Well, Facebook does that for you to an extent, which I find rather unnerving. Let me choose the updates I want to see. Don’t pick them for me based on my history of interaction and content posted!) And, yes, you can follow people on Facebook, but the functionality is still quite different from Google+ or Twitter.
Mobile and Social
As of the latest release, the Google+ Mobile App now has a permanent place on my iPhone’s first homescreen for easy access.
The app itself works very well, and certainly much better than before, as the technology has receded into near invisibility. Unlike other Google products, which are often accused of being too Spartan, the mobile app aims for, and succeeds with, spatial balance. Now, if only my friends and business acquaintances and bloggers I like would use Google+…
More iPhone App Reviews:
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc