Stunning iPhone app is our first taste of the new Google

The bold new design of the Google+ iPhone app has major implications for the future of Google's social network, and the trajectory of the company.

Here's what a status update looks like in the new Google+ iPhone app. Jason Hiner/CNET

Vic Gundotra has been running engineering teams at Google since 2006 but he's never been more bullish about what Google is building than he is today and there's one simple reason: Design.

"We care more about design than we ever have in our history," Gundotra said the day after his pet project, Google+, launched a groundbreaking new redesign for its iPhone app.

The new app design is a stunning departure from the previous Google+ app and from the Google+ site interface itself. Released on May 9, it turns the act of scanning social media updates into a highly visual experience by combining a slick rendering of your avatar with the signature image of whatever you're posting and then overlaying the first two lines of your text. The effect is quite appealing, and addicting.

I immediately found myself spending a lot more time in the app. In fact, within the first 24 hours I found myself going to the Google+ app before opening my Twitter app just because it's a lot more pleasant to flip through. That's never happened before. Twitter has long been my social network of choice, and even more so on mobile.

I was so struck by this that I got in touch with Google+ chief Gundotra to ask him if this little app was as really as significant to him and Google as it appeared it was to me.

"This redesign was a very, very big deal for us," he said.

He also confirmed that the data from the first 24 hours showed the same experience that I had: Users were spending a lot more time in the app.

A visual leap

For Gundotra and his team the goal with the new smartphone app was simple: Make sharing less intimidating and more attractive.

Here's what a full status update looks like when you tap into it. Jason Hiner/CNET

"Sharing is one of the most stressful things people do," Gundotra said, referring to the fact that when sharing, most people worry about whether anyone will notice and what they will say if they do notice.

"When they share, they want to be really proud of what they share," he said. "So we asked ourselves, 'How can we put them in the best light possible?' We want to make you look good when you share."

To accomplish that, Gundotra's team completely blew up their existing mobile app -- which had debuted with the launch of Google+ last summer -- and started over. They wanted to come up with something that truly took advantage of the strengths of today's smartphones.

"We don't believe mobile is a small version of the desktop," said Gundotra. "We are optimizing the experience for the device... The intimacy of touch allows us to do things you wouldn't do on the desktop."

As a result, the Google+ design team broke away from the straight reader app like social competitors Twitter and Facebook have. That format works for Twitter because of the 140-character limit, which means readers can quickly scan lots of updates to stay on top of what's happening in the world. But, Facebook and Google+ have no character limit and so posts are longer and sharing photos is a lot more common. The result is a mobile experience that's clunky to navigate and feels like a crippled subset of the desktop experience.

That's why Google+ decided to change the game and go visual. The result is a social app that is a lot closer to Flipboard or Pinterest than the Twitter or Facebook apps. It feels more like a visual bookmarking or photo app, and it works because the lion's share of online articles now include a big horizontal image that ends up serving as a thumbnail when shared on social services and in various apps. And, even when there is no text, Google+ makes the update look good with some nice font smoothing and scaling.

All in all, I actually prefer using the Google+ mobile app to the desktop browser experience, which is another first for me.

The big question mark is how well it will scale. Right now, Google+ is mostly inhabited by a rabid group of technophiles so the updates don't flow by nearly as fast as Twitter. Obviously, that also depends on how many people and who you follow. But, if Google+ were to take off and people started posting more, I think I'd have to follow fewer people, check Google+ more often, or simply find that it wasn't as effective for scanning updates since each Google+ post takes up about 3-4 times as much screen space as a Twitter update, for example.

The other big question is why Google released this redesign for the iPhone before releasing a version for Google's own Android platform. The original version of the Google+ mobile app was nearly identical on the two platforms.

Gundotra said, "It's just the way schedule worked out."

The Google+ team is building additional functionality into the Android app. The iPhone app with the core functionality was finished before the Android app was ready, so Gundotra made the decision to go ahead and release it. However, even in the blog post he wrote announcing the redesigned app, he teased that the Android app was coming in a "few weeks" and that would include some "extra surprises."

When I pressed Gundotra, he wouldn't reveal any hints about the additional functionality in the Android version of the app. He simply said, "I think you'll be delighted by the few more surprises we have in store."

But, he also all-but-guaranteed that a tablet app was also in the works. "It's one of our most requested pieces of feedback, and we pay very close attention to feedback," he said.

Bigger implications

Design has never been a core competency at Google. In fact, the company has almost been anti-design from the beginning. In many ways, the secret of the success of Google.com has always been its sparseness. It has had virtually no design except for the multi-colored Google logo pared with a simple text entry field, and then when you click "Google Search" or hit Enter you get a straight list of search results without much additional clutter on the page.

Here's the design of Google's original search engine from the late 1990s. Google

Google's other big hit, Android, has often been criticized for its design -- even being chided as a less-polished knock-off of the iPhone. Other products such as Google Docs have suffered from inconsistency and generally unremarkable designs.

However, since Larry Page returned as Google CEO last April he has put far greater emphasis on product development by cutting the number of products that Google is working on and demanding higher quality from the ones that are left. Earlier this year Page  said :

"Creating a simpler, more intuitive experience across Google has been [an] important focus. I have always believed that technology should do the hard work -- discovery, organization, communication -- so users can do what makes them happiest: living and loving, not messing with annoying computers! That means making our products work together seamlessly... As Sergey said in the memorable way only he can, 'We've let a thousand flowers bloom; now we want to put together a coherent bouquet.'"

We saw hints of this last year when Google simplified its home page and launched an updated navigation bar that was standardized across all of its major products. We saw another hint of it last month when Google+ launched a major overhaul of its full browser experience.

But, this new mobile app that has ironically first reared its head on the iPhone is the most powerful example of the kind of service that Google+ wants to be and the kind of products that Page's new Google wants to create.

"Google+ is demonstrating what will be the future of the entire company," said Gundotra. "We want software to be emotionally resonant with users... This is just the beginning."

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