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Trying out Google+

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

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image captionChatting to friends via webcam on Hangout

For the last 24 hours the social networks have been buzzing with comment and speculation - about a new social network.

Google+ is the search giant's latest attempt to take on Facebook and prove it can be sociable. What we won't know for some time is whether it's going to be a hit or a miss - because Google has deliberately restricted access to around 200,000 people while it irons out the wrinkles and introduces new features.

The strategy is understandable. After all, Buzz and Wave crashed and burned when initial enthusiasm was replaced by instant disillusionment after users found those previous efforts at social products were either too complex or too intrusive.

But, having been lucky enough to get an invitation to try Google+, I've encountered the Catch 22 of social networking - it's not much use until all of your mates are there to join in the networking fun.

Still, I rounded up a few friends and colleagues to come and join me in Google+ and we set off to play. Once logged in, the first thing we noticed was just how much the layout resembled another social network.

"It looks just like Facebook!" exclaimed one friend.

And indeed with a list of status updates running down the page, a box at the top inviting you to "share what's new" and a box of profile photos to the side, it won't be difficult for new users to get the hang of the whole idea.

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image captionDoes something about this look familiar?

The most attractive feature is the one that Google has been pushing hardest - the Circles idea which helps you organise just how much you share and with whom. You create various Circles - friends, relatives, colleagues - and then drag your contacts into them.

It's easy and intuitive, and makes you think about how you communicate with the different layers of your social life.

Then when you post anything - an update, a photo, perhaps a link on a Google map - you can choose which of the circles you want to get it.

This does, at first sight, look like a real improvement on Facebook's privacy settings - easier to understand and to manage.

The next thing I tried was another idea that Facebook does not have - group video chat. It's called Hangout, and the idea is that you announce that you're "hanging out", and then anyone in your circles that happens to be in front of a webcam can come and join the conversation.

I managed to assemble five of us on a Hangout, though four were actually members of the Google press team, and it seemed to work pretty well.

If you did manage to get lots of colleagues in different locations all signed up to the service, I can imagine that it might prove a cheap and cheerful video conferencing system.

Ahead of Apple

There is also an Android smartphone app for the Google+ network which I've tested briefly. It offers Huddle, a group text-messaging system, but more interesting is an option which automatically uploads photos from your phone to your profile.

That's an idea which Steve Jobs unveiled as a feature of Apple's iCloud service. Now Google has got in first.

So the search giant is giving two of its biggest rivals, Facebook and Apple, something to think about.

But if this latest attempt to crack social networking is to fare better than its predecessors, Google has to confront an even bigger force - inertia.

There are 750 million Facebook users around the globe who have invested a lot in building their profiles and assembling their networks of friends. Persuading them to move is going to be quite a job.

As for me, I've enjoyed the couple of hours I've spent on this new network - but I'm not convinced I will be spending a lot more time there until I can be sure of finding the same stream of news, gossip, fun and trivia that I now experience on Facebook and Twitter.