Google hasn't had much luck with its social networking efforts in the past, but the company is ready to give it another go with an ambitious project that brings together some good ideas from the reigning king of social networks with its own. The service, dubbed Google+, will initially be available only to a limited number of users as part of a "field trial."
The site bears a definite resemblance to Facebook, with streaming feeds where users can share and discuss status updates, photos and links. But Google hopes to differentiate itself by more closely mimicking the way we organize our friends in real life, which is why its new service is designed for sharing with small groups -- like colleagues, family members or close buddies -- instead of with all of a user's friends or the entire web.
It's worth noting that Facebook offers similar functionality within its revamped Groups feature, launched in October 2010 apparently with knowledge of Google's plans, but so far it doesn't seem to have taken off.
There are five basic components to Google+: Circles, Sparks, Hangouts, Instant Uploads and Huddle. The first is Google+'s method of managing friends, where you can create different circles of contacts and add people to them. When you add people to circles in Google+, they'll see that you've connected with them, but they won't see which circle you've put them in. When posting something, Google+ allows you to select which circles can see the content, and conversely when viewing your stream you can filter by circles to cut out the noise and focus on what you are interested in.
Sparks lets you subscribe to specific interest of yours -- "gaming" or "football", for example -- and then goes out and gathers relevant content from all over the web to give you a constantly updated feed.
Hangouts is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch and puts applications like Skype on notice. Basically it allows live video conversations with up to 10 friends at once. You can click on the Hangout button and notify members of a certain group that you are available and ready to talk, creating spontaneous meetings with friends or colleagues. The main video box shows the person who's speaking the loudest at any given time.
Meanwhile, on the mobile front, Huddle will enable group chatting among with your Google+ peers (similar to Beluga, which Facebook acquired in March) and Instant Uploads automatically uploads photos snapped with your mobile device to an online storage spot on Google+. You can watch 10 more videos explaining Google+ here.