Preview: Google+ Mobile
Category: Smartphones, Social Networking
BYTE -- It's bad form to roll out a new service without some kind of mobile app available. As expected, Google rolled out a mobile app with its beta of the Google+ social network -- an app for the Android platform. BYTE took a long look.
Google was wise to launch this app along with its limited-use service. The service will need debugging from every direction before a mass rollout. I tried out the Android application on two different phones--a stock LG Optimus T running Android 2.2 and a rooted Motorola Cliq XT running CyanogenMod 7.0.3 (Android 2.3.3).
Excepting an issue with photos I'll discuss below, the app ran smoothly on both phones. Here's the main menu for the Google+ app for Android. It's clean and simple.
On launch, the app presents your choice of Stream, Huddle, Photos, Circles or User Profile -- each selectable via a large icon.
The Stream view is a miniaturized version of the full website. Here you find tools at top for adding a post, taking a picture or choosing a nearby location. Your stream sits below. Swipe to the right and you get any nearby public activity. Swipe to the left and you see the incoming feed. It works intuitively.
Here's a stream view with posts and comments. The stream updates itself automatically and it allows you to force a reload if you think you've lost connectivity. That's a nice feature.
Notifications are confined to notification-only pages.
The mobile app aims to allow sharing of photos you take with the device. Notice the arrow to the right of "Friends." Use it to select the circles of contacts -- family, acquaintances and so on -- you want to share the photo with. Obviously, you want to share your photos with some groups and not others. With this, Google gives a welcome nod to user privacy.
The pencil icon brings up a text box for sharing posts, location data or photos. Tap the photo icon to either snap a new picture or select one from the photos already on your camera or in your Picasa albums.
Photosharing is the single most addictive feature of the app -- and possibly of all Google+. It's well designed, too. You decide when uploads take place. For instance, you're able to set them only during WiFi connections and only when the phone's plugged in and charging. That makes it easy to go out, snap bunches of pictures, add comments, and automatically upload them from a data connection that doesn't penalize you $1.99 a MB for overage fees. Nice touch.
Program options include several other ways to constrain uploads as the situation requires.
I should note that the behavior of the camera app varied between the two phones. On my LG, invoking the camera function from Google+ did not work automatically to share or add with Picasa, as I expected it would. I had to select the newly-snapped picture manually from the phone's album. Whether that is a limitation around the way LG implemented its camera in Android is still unclear. The app on the rooted Motorola phone, you see, ran as I expected. I'll be following this up over time and talking to Google and LG.
Managing circles via the mobile app works well. I could accomplish almost anything with circles on the mobile app as I can on the full social app site.
Most of the functionality you'd find on Google+'s main site is available through the app -- this includes managing who belongs in what circles. Suitably, the interfaces for doing that is greatly simplified in the mobile app.
I found only two main areas where the mobile app didn't match the full site in functionality. I couldn't edit my user profile or use Hangout, the Google+ real-time webcam chat system. The latter matched expectations -- I never expected the app to do that on my mobile devices.
I was able to use Huddle -- the text chat system -- however I found the system to act strangely once I had the app on more than one mobile device. My posts only showed up on the device I made them on. Here is another area where I'll be following up with Google. It just isn't clear if this is a limitation of the service or a bug in the app. It's early yet.
Huddle, the instant real-time chat system in Google+, is available in the mobile app. Hangout, the video-conferencing system, isn't. At least not yet.
For the most part, I found the Google+ app to be surprisingly stable, even in this early 1.0 incarnation. A minor bug involving malformed dates on pictures in galleries was fixed almost immediately with a point upgrade.
I did experience a crash involving the use of a contact who was only available via email -- that is, someone who didn't have a formal Google+ account -- but the app recovered immediately where it left off after the crash. That's impressive at this early an incarnation.
Here's the mobile browser version of the Google+ site's main page. Find most all the functionality of the full site listed here. You can collapse the list of additional Google services.
If you're on a device that has no native-app support yet -- this includes BlackBerry, Windows, Nokia/Symbian or an iOS platform where an app is still under wraps -- there's an easy workaround. Just fire up a web browser and use the mobile version of the Google+ site--that's m.google.com/plus.
It's remarkably similar to the app--or, maybe, I should say the app is similar to the mobile site. If you want the full website experience, you just switch from the mobile version to the desktop version with a link at the bottom of the main page. Again, most of the same functions are present -- management of circles and so on -- but minus the slick feel of the full website's interface.
Like the service itself, the Google+ app is in its infancy. Yet I found it to be already pretty solid and useful. It's hard not to imagine what this will look like at a tablet form factor, where integrated video will work out the gate and really shine. All in all, Google's so far showing excellent work in its mobile app design.
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