Google goes after Facebook with Google+

After months of rumors, Google takes the wraps off its own social network

After months of speculation, Google has launched a social network to rival Facebook.

Google today unveiled its Google+ project, a social networking service that looks and functions very much like Facebook. The two Internet giants have been increasingly competitive, and with today's announcement, Google is taking a giant step directly onto Facebook's market.

"Among the most basic of human needs is the need to connect with others," wrote Vic Gundotra, Google's senior vice president of engineering, in a blog post. "Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online. Yet the subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools. In this basic, human way, online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it."

Google's new service, which now is only available to a small group of users and invitees, is designed to enable people to post status updates, share links and upload photos.

However, what Google hopes will set its social network apart from Facebook and the smaller social networking services is that Google+ is set up to allow users to communicate within separate groups of their online friends. Instead of posting an update that goes out to everyone, Google+ enables users to create "circles" or groups, such as a user's poker buddies, college friends, work colleagues and family members.

Now a user can communicate separately with each group.

"The "circles" idea makes a lot of sense," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research. "It's smart, and while you can do something similar in Facebook, it's not Facebook's main thing. It's not as easy to do."

But it remains to be seen whether this feature will be enough to convince Facebook users -- many of whom are already tied in with sometimes hundreds of people on Facebook -- to use a second social network or even toss aside the über-popular Facebook in favor a brand new service that not many people are using.

Bloggers and pundits have long talked about whether Google would come out with a Facebook killer, but that is one tall order.

The one certainty is that Google is facing an uphill battle in taking on Facebook. While the social network has officially said that it has more than 500 million users, other sources recently have reported that the number now is more than 750 million.

But Google has accepted the challenge.

With Google+, the company is giving users a way to get a rolling scroll of content from across the Internet on any topic of they're interested in. Really into fashion, gardening or restoring old cars? Google+ will stream a feed of content into your page so you can stay up to date on your favorite topics.

And with a feature called "Hangouts," Google+ enables users to meet up with their friends online, using multiperson video.

Want to share the photos on your smartphone but don't want the hassle of uploading them? With the user's permission, Google+ will take the photos you've snapped with your phone and store them in the cloud so you can easily move them onto any of your devices.

"We realize that Google+ is a different kind of project, requiring a different kind of focus -- on you," Gundotra wrote. "That's why we're giving you more ways to stay private or go public; more meaningful choices around your friends and your data."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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