Today marks the 20th anniversary of the very first web site. It is hard for me to believe it has been twenty years since I have been working with the web for nineteen of them and it still seems like just yesterday I was learning HTML for the first time. To say that the invention of the World Wide Web changed humanity forever would not be a stretch by any means.
The web went from being a curiosity to an essential piece of our global infrastructure just like the electric grid and telephone network before it. Some countries use it for elections. Communities use the web to notify their residents of emergencies. Families and friends use it to keep in touch. Ecommerce has grown into a trillion dollar a year business. In some cases the web has even been used as a form of revolution to topple a government.
With all the ways the World Wide Web has changed the world in just twenty years one has to wonder what type of changes we will see over the next twenty years from being a more connected society.
Now that I have spent a few days exploring and experimenting with the Google+ pre-launch beta test, I figured I would share my thoughts on it. This is Google’s most ambitious project to date and so far even in this early test phase what I have seen has impressed me.
I am going to make a bold statement here: Google+ is the social network many of us have been waiting for.
A good way to think of Google+ is not simply as a site, but as a meta-layer that lays over top of many of Google’s different properties and glues them together to form a really nice social platform with a nice selection of tools to control visibility of content and privacy.
At first glance Google+ seems to be similar to Facebook. The layout will be familiar and intuitive to you, utilizing a standard three-column layout. The main content area has Google+’s stream which functions largely the same as Facebook’s news feed. Here you will see posts by people you have in your circles, photos, videos, etc.
The only negative thing I have to say so far about the stream is that in this early pre-release test phase a user does not have a lot of control over sorting and display of content within the stream but I am pretty sure from stuff I have been reading more changes and features are coming to the stream before the service goes officially live. For the time being the best control I have over the stream is viewing it by circle.
As for circles, this is one of the core features of Google+ that differs it from other social platforms out there. Circles is what allows a lot of the magic to happen.
Circles are groupings of people we add and follow. Anytime you add a contact you can add them to one or more circles. The people you have in your circles have no idea what circles you have them in at all – it is invisible to everyone but yourself. This gives you the ability to group friends from different parts of your life that you may or may not want to come in contact with one another.
While we may not consider it so, our real, non-digital lives exist within a real life social network. The difference between our real life social network and our digital one is that in the real life social network we live within is comprised of many different circles of people that may never interact, but on a site like Facebook they do and sometimes this may not be desired.
A good, basic example would be work vs friends. What if you play hooky from work to go to the beach with some friends and one of your friends innocently tags a photo with you from the beach or checks you in to the bar the day you were supposedly out sick? Oops! Your boss who you added as a friend will be none too pleased.
How about that conservative brother and your liberal friends? Sometimes even something seemingly innocent you post could end up setting off a firestorm of drama.
With circles those awkward, inconvenient moments can be mitigated quite a bit. Google+ won’t save you from the idiotic late-night drunken post or the mis-fired angry missive but every piece of content you post on Google+ gives you control over visibility and sharing.
When you post something, you select which circle(s) you want it to be visible to. You can also control if you want people to be able to comment on it or if they are allowed to share it on their own stream. You can even set an item to be public for whole web visibility or name specific recipients of a message by plussing them, ie ‘+Jon Niola’ to make a post into a private message ONLY visible to those people. And all of this is very easy and user friendly to figure out.
I think it is very easy to see how this platform can be a direct challenge to Facebook, especially once the SDK and API’s are out and developers can integrate apps, games, and pages as with Facebook. Even in this early stage of the product lifecycle it does most of what Facebook does but with more focus on user control of their data and privacy. Hell, if it does not work out for you, Google even has a tool to take all of your data with you to a competing site if you choose.
Google+ is a threat to Twitter as well. The ability for you to post content to the public for anyone to view or to specific circles of followers but without the limit of 140 characters is pretty nice. As a user you can choose if you want to make the given post read-only or allow comments and make it an actual conversation.
Your location-based social services such as Foursquare and Gowalla etc are on the line too. With the Android app for Google+ users can check in to places (with photos, video etc) and geotagged just like these other services, only with the granular privacy controls of Google+’s circles.
Another cool feature are the hangouts. Fire up your webcam and join folks in your various circles in a video chat right in your browser window. Quality and functionality are similar if not a little better than Skype.
What about LinkedIn? Well, nothing stops you from using Google+ for your professional networking now either. Create circles for various jobs you have worked at or your current job and isolate your posts between friends, family, work etc.
Google has a lot of web properties people use daily without much thought. Google Maps is so ubiquitous it is easy to take it for granted as yet another piece of web infrastructure. But integrate Google Search, Gmail, Maps, Places, Youtube, Picassa, Blogger, the Chrome browser, Google Docs, etc with the Google+ platform and you have THE social web.
Despite all these highly successful properties there has been so little connecting them until now. Right now we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg with what Google will be able to do with this platform as it evolves.
Am I saying that Google+ is going to crush everything and take over the world? I don’t think that will be the case. I believe all the various social services will continue to co-exist in some form. What will happen though is some will either innovate and evolve to better compete, or some may integrate themselves with Google+ via API’s as Foursquare, Twitter, and others do now with Facebook.
It is hard for me as a tech geek to write about Google+ without getting excited. I have been a fan of Google’s various offerings for years and now they are finally coming together. It does not take Nostradamus to see the enormous potential in the Google+ platform to take the Internet to the next level. What we are witnessing is yet another incremental evolution of the web. I think the next year is going to be quite exciting.
Since having converted to the Cult of Android in May, I have been on the lookout for great, useful apps that enhance my experiences in some way. I am not one for installing any odd shit on my phone. Hell I think I still have less than 20 apps installed outside of the stock apps my phone came with.
One app that I had never heard of until a friend mentioned it is Google’s own My Tracks. In a word, this app is awesome.
I should also mention, My Tracks is also available for iPhone but I have not used it on that platform yet so my focus here is on the Android version.
In a nutshell, the app can record your movement, or “tracks” using GPS and then allows you to share the map on Google Maps for others to see (or not.)
When you record your track, you can set markers for landmarks or points of interest along the way. So for example, say you take a hike in the woods and find something really cool like an old abandoned car, you can tag that spot with a marker and give it a description and it will be easier for others to find.
This functionality has made it a useful app for geocaching and some folks are even using it to track locations of shipwrecks.
Another use for this application is for fitness – runners, walkers, bikers etc.
While not explicitly designed for runners like Nike+, using Google’s My Tracks app does not require any special sensors or special shoes since it relies on a GPS signal to plot it’s data. And it is hard to beat the price as My Tracks is free.
The screenshot to the left shows a stats view from a track I recorded walking around Plainsboro Preserve. It shows distance traveled, time, pace etc all interesting. It also shows elevation statistics such as high, low, gain etc. Unfortunately though from researching that aspect it seems that GPS accuracy is less than ideal.
I have been using the app quite a bit just walking/jogging to see how my pace is compared to a previous time. I can keep multiple track recordings on my Android phone to compare information and determine if I am making any improvement in my pace and with some basic math figure out an estimate of calories burned if I wanted to.
A cool feature I mentioned briefly above is the ability to share the track you recorded. Say you went for an off-the-trail hike in the woods, found some nice sights and wanted your friends to be able to re-trace your path? Well you can have the app send the track via email to your friends, or share it to Google’s own Google Maps service and from there set the map to public or private. Sadly no option to save it to any third-party sites such as Facebook or Twitter, though I suppose there might be a reason for that.
Here is an uploaded track I recorded on Google Maps.
On the map you will notice I set some markers such as “Maggie’s Trail” – every time you set a marker on the mobile My Tracks app it also stores metadata on the cell phone signal quality, carrier, tower etc. Most likely not too interesting to you unless you are a pretty hardcore geek (which some of us are lol.)
There are probably other uses I will figure out over time, but as it is now this is quite a useful and fun app.
I consider myself adventurous when it comes to new interactive services and usually always try out the next “new” thing if anything just to satisfy my curiosity. It is always an interesting journey to see what ideas take off and which ones flounder into obscurity.
My most recent experiment is the location-based social networking service Foursquare. While not bleeding-edge brand new (it launched sometime in Spring 2009) it has really gained some momentum lately and some friends of mine started using it so I figured what the hell and signed up to give it a spin.
An added bonus was when I discovered they had an Android app. As a recent convert to the world of Android this past May when I bought my HTC Droid Incredible I figured this would be a nice experiment to see how well they implemented this service on both web and handheld.
In a nutshell, Foursquare allows you to post, or “check-in” at a location to say you visited, see who else has visited, and who has visited that venue the most (the “mayor”) as well as leave tips or shouts about a venue, ie “Try the Triumph burger it is for the win!”
Visiting a location frequently or visiting a certain number of different venues unlocks profile badges. One badge for example is called Local and is awarded for checking into the same venue three times in one week.
These badges you earn are visible on your Foursquare profile as seen in my screenshot on the left so everyone can see where you have visited or what things you have done. In some cases they even have special badges for an event such as the World Cup or NBA Finals.
The idea is that you can add your friends and see where they are checking in and maybe meet up with them (go go stalker service? lol) or find new things to visit you might not have know about or thought of. In some cases you might get a badge for visiting a featured location like a specific restaurant or historical location.
That is basically what it is in it’s current incarnation. I can see a lot of potential revenue-generating angles for them to add to the service over time and with that huge batch of Series B capital they just closed on I am expecting/hoping to see some big enhancements and changes in the coming months.
Right now it is sink or swim for them. When they were little no one heard of them. Now that they are pushing 2 million users they are on the radar of all the big guys – Google, Facebook, Microsoft etc.
Now getting back to the basics of Foursquare – as it stands right now other than it being yet another social network to have to keep tabs on, I have not found a real benefit or value to using it at this time.
It is a simple question that I have not found an answer for yet – for what reason should I use Foursquare?
I have been browsing profiles on Foursquare to see who is doing what and I have come to the conclusion that many people fit into two camps. People like myself giving it a try out of curiosity and people who are egotistical nerd super-achievers who are mayors of like a dozen locations and have many hundreds of check-ins and badges.
Right now though it seems the balance of value is on Foursquare’s side. They get all this absolutely delicious location-specific data from their users that marketers would be delighted to buy access to. They have people willingly going to venues and saying I was here at this time.
I am not really into badge collecting. I am not one for wanting people to be right on my tracks so I don’t turn on stuff on my phone that lets most people know where I am at any given time. And I don’t see the point of checking in to places I visit right now.
None of this is to say the service is awful or bad or that it has no potential – quite the contrary. I think a location-based service such as Foursquare has huge potential but right now it seems they are missing the mark.
The bread & butter of their service will be the mobile apps. For the most part their web site is not even really needed other than as a desktop portal.
With that in mind let’s check out the Android app. (Note that they also make apps for iPhone, Blackberry and Palm as well.)
When you launch the app, the first screen you get shown is the “friend screen” – I understand why they did this but as you can see in my screenshot this screen is nearly useless. Out of the few friends I have added, only Jeff has his app/phone set to show his current location.
I would have either made the screen more user-specific – ie you see only recent friend check-ins nearby or even better (at least in my opinion) I would have made the default screen a “places near my location” type of deal. As they add more features to the service they could even make the main entry view more of a portal such as showing a restaurant near you that is having a special a special on wings for every run the Yankees score tonight or the museum nearby is offering half-off today. Or even the local library promoting a reading event.
There is a lot of room to enhance the places view as well.
For example, in this screenshot from my phone on the left imagine how much more useful it would be if it had star ratings right on this screen. Not just one either – like one from users, maybe one from Zagats, AAA or some other relevant service.
So a scenario would be I am in city visiting for work or whatever, I’d pull out my phone, fire up the app, give the GPS a moment to lock in my location and pull on the list and say “oh look a 5-star burger joint is only 100 meters up the road.” Or say I am out at 3 am with some friends and I want to find a place that is actually open, give me a preference to filter places to show places to eat that are within 1000 meters and open at this very moment.
Hell they could even cross-market or partner with someone like Urbanspoon or Yelp to get some venue-specific data if needed.
The venue screen to the left is a prime example of an under-utilized screen. Not only could they have the ratings I mentioned earlier there, they could/should feature relevant data such as phone number, hours, etc. There is another tab called Tips that has user-submitted blurbs but most venues have very few if any.
One of the downsides to allowing people to add venues is that there is a lot of shady data. One pizza place near me exists in the database three times – because three people added it with differently spelled names.
Superusers (the most active users) can supposedly edit the venues now but as I am not a superuser I am unable to see how this works or if I can merge multiple listings into one.
Another issue is people adding their own house. In the suburbs it is not as bad but in a city like NYC with some tall vertical residences you end up with stacks of peoples’ homes mixed in with the legit listings. I don’t know Omar or David nor do I care to know they live at XYZ and I doubt I will be checking in there.
I understand why they allowed people to add venues, but it seems to me they lost some of their control in doing so.
I found the maps for venues to not always be accurate either which I am guessing has a lot to do with random users adding said venues. If you go to add a venue and your GPS is off by a 50 meters or so the map rendering itself won’t be correct.
Fortunately most venues I have checked into are in their proper place, but I have found a few that are not and as far as I can see there is no way through the app to report a venue as being inappropriate, closed, or erroneous in some way.
Even a simple button to click and report it so that they could at least follow up somehow or just remove a venue if it turns out it does not belong and help them maintain better data integrity. Nothing can be more terrible for a service like this than invalid or irrelevant data. People are impatient and if they encounter it often enough they might say hell with it and not use Foursquare.
This final screenshot here shows the actual venue check-in screen.
This is where you see how they tie in with other social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter.
Some folks may choose to broadcast this info out to their accounts and friends. Others won’t. All comes down to one’s own personal privacy preferences.
Location-aware services are still in their infancy and we are rapidly learning about how they can open up a whole other can of worms for privacy and safety.
For example, earlier this year a site named Please Rob Me threw together a page to show when people were not at home based on their updates to Foursquare and other social networking services.
Anytime you share info about yourself or friends on the web you are compromising your privacy some. It is up to each and every one of us where we the line is for too much sharing.
A service such as Foursquare is not exactly without privacy issues itself either.
So what’s the verdict? It is a decent concept and implementation but it is rough around the edges.
For me it is that the service does not offer me enough of a benefit to use it at this time. As the disclaimer goes though, your mileage may vary and judging by some of the profiles I have seen there are no doubt some very active, content users.
I think we will see a lot coming out of the Foursquare folks in the coming months. Their service shows a lot of promise. For now I am keeping my account on there but probably won’t be actively checking in to anything.
Hopefully they will give me something cool to write about in the near future.