Google's quietly unveiled one of its most ambitious projects yet -- a social network called Google+ that goes head to head with Facebook. Grab a coffee, sit back, strap in, hit the beach and prepare your mind as we talk you through Google+'s impressive, -bothering features.
Unlike Facebook, Google+ lets you sort your friends into different social groups. The benefit is that you can post updates to different circles, keeping certain friends deliberately out of the loop. You could make a +Circle for your colleagues, for instance, or one for your wine-tasting buddies, another for your family and one for your live-action roleplaying society, where you post pictures of yourself wearing chainmail.
Facebook lets you hide posts from certain friends, and tinker with which of your friends can see what, but anyone who's tried to fiddle with those settings will know it's a difficult, counter-intuitive process.
Google+ should make it much easier to sort your friends -- you simply drag your buddies into the big, pleasing circle icons, and avoid having your mum see all those compromising photos from that one time you tried mixing red and white wine to make superwine.
Google cryptically says +Sparks is for "nerding out. Together". In fact it's a kind of RSS for your interests. Add search terms to Sparks, and you'll be presented with a list of interesting snippets from around the Web that relate to them. You might add 'technology', 'dinosaurs' and 'breakfast cereals' to your Sparks list, for example, and then Google will populate your feed with items related to those crucial subjects.
Facebook doesn't really have anything like this, and it's a clever way of using Google's search expertise -- its brain-melting algorithms are perfect for hunting down videos and stories from around the Web you're likely to be interested in. You'll also be able to discuss the stuff that pops up with your Google friends, henceforth to be known as G-Men. Maybe.
+Hangouts is Google's attempt to replicate the simple fun of hanging out with friends, getting steadily more drunk and letting conversation descend into madness, with no agenda, no timings to stick to, and no rules. Except you'll be doing so over webcam.
Google reckons being bored is great for creativity (we agree), so if you've got some spare time, you can mark yourself as willing to hang out from your Google+ page. Your friends can then join your 'Hangout', where you'll chat, enjoy nonsense, mess about over video chat and hopefully create beautiful, creative content rather than expose your naughty parts via webcam.
We admire the idea, even if there's some small vestige of pre-Internet brain that says if you've got nothing to do, you should probably go hang out in real life. Watch the video, which features scary overuse of the world unfolding.
+Huddle's a group messaging tool that pings a message to one of your +Circles, using the Google+ Android and iPhone apps (the Android app is available now, the iPhone version is incoming). You can send a message to a group of your friends that belong to a certain Circle -- if you've just seen a terrible movie, for instance, you could send your scathing review to your amateur film critic Circle, from your mobile. Nifty.
Another (rather terrifiying) feature is the ability to have photos you take on your mobile automatically uploaded to a private album in Google's cloud, from where you can share them as you see fit. And if you've a mind to, you can add location info to all your updates too. This will never go wrong.
Why Google+ will succeed
Google+ isn't publicly available yet, but we're really impressed with the features Google's looking to implement. The ability to easily manage different social circles is immensely appealing, and tying Google's Web nous into Sparks should ensure you're constantly met with a barrage of interesting content, based on your hobbies and interests.
Google services are generally clean, clear and work well, without too much annoying advertising breaking the spell, so we're hopeful Google+ is as easy to use as Documents, Gmail, Maps and others. Facebook might be more established, but it's about as easy to navigate as a hall of mirrors and has a less than perfect privacy record. As the pin-sharp webcomic xkcd points out, this is Facebook but not made by Facebook.
Why Google+ will fail
Remember? That was Google's attempt at toppling Twitter, and it failed, because everyone who wanted to indulge in a spot of micoblogging was already using Twitter. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone on the planet who isn't already heavily invested in Facebook and their circle of Facebook friends -- and prying people away is going to be more than tricky.
Another stumbling block will be that hardly anyone takes much interest in their Google contacts. Going through the arduous process of finding all your friends again would be a rather troublesome chore.
Google+ is currently invite-only -- another reason it may fail to capitalise on any launch buzz -- but you can toy around with a demo. What are your preliminary thoughts? Will you be throwing Facebook on the sacrificial pyre, or is Google way too late to the social gathering? Let us know in the comments, or let fly on our Facebook wall.