If you run the mobile app version of Google+ you can't help but spot the Check-ins feature--it's right there on the front page. It works with admirable simplicity: Push it, select the appropriate location which is spewed from Google Place's database, and tap "check in." Similar check-in status is afforded when you enable a status update to have a location attached. Privacy is neatly managed within Circles, and if you can bother to spend the time, you can change each check-in's sharing status.
Plenty is missing from this bare-bones service: There're no badges, no mayorships, no location-based deal vouchers in association with AmEx. in short, it's not a game. It's just a shared check-in service. Now, that may leave systems like Foursquare out in front since its competitive angle and, increasingly, sponsorship deals are definitely a draw to many users.
But that's not to say that Google won't implement some or all of these features or even surpass them--it's not short of coders, and if Google+ takes off then it would probably be mere weeks of work to get a gaming angle built in. Foursquare, Gowalla et al.? Get a little nervous, because Google's doing all this from an app many people will be using as default--rather than searching out Foursquare's icon.
Color/Instagram-challenging photo sharing
Continuing Google's recent trend of oddly askew naming, there seems to be a new social photo app called Pool Party due to hit imminently. Not much is yet known about it, other than it's going to be directed very much at social sharing, and that it came from the seemingly free-wheeling Slide developer team inside Google. There's already a group messaging app in Google+, Huddle, as well as a simple photo sharing app. So could Google integrate Pool Party into Google+?
Very possibly, it wouldn't take much coder effort. And if that happened, then Google could quickly begin to challenge the exploding new social photo apps like Instagram (and, as a counterexample of a less successful enterprise, Color).
Gaming versus everyone
Buried deep inside +'s code are numerous mysterious references to "game invites," "Google+ games," and so on, and yet for now Google+ is a game-free arena (unless you fancy playing 20 questions with your Circles). The hints do tally with recent Google job postings, and the idea of building games into + makes good sense--it could tap into both the casual gaming meme and the social gaming meme, something that even Apple's tried to do with Game Center. And could Google let gaming happen inside its framework without taking a 30% revenue cut like Facebook or Apple do? Sure--its income is big enough, and it could serve revenue-genreating ads all over the game portals.
Questions versus Quora, Answers.com
Also hidden in the code are references to "Questions." There are hints about forming better questions, tagging them, sharing and commenting...and though we have little to go on other than Google's acquisition of Aardvark (a social-based question-and-answer forum that "discovers the perfect person to answer any question in minutes"), we can speculate that Google is going to add in this power to + at some point.
Facebook is directly challenged by many of +'s features, as well as possible upcoming ones like social photo sharing and casual gaming, but there's one feature Facebook perhaps needs to be extremely worried about: the fact that + is "on" by default if you're logged in to a Google account. As pointed out by AllFacebook.com, this is extraordinarily potent because if you're using almost any Google service, the notifications center is active and will pop an alert up if you get chatted to, a status gets commented on... It makes + pervasive, particularly if you're one of the millions upon millions of existing Gmail users. And if you're already immersed in conversations and sharing events on + will you spend time investing in chats on Facebook?
For now, yes, since + really isn't as polished as Facebook is for this kind of social sharing. For now.
You could take a leap of imagination and say that all these hints, combined with the always-on nature of + and the (and much needed) sleek redesign of the look and feel of Google products like Gmail, Calendars and search, are Google's not-at-all-subtle attempt to control many of the things that most web users are doing at the moment in individual apps and services. Not all of these are going to be successful, but some will be and there are likely other features yet to be unveiled, and the juiciest bits of + may actually not be the headline-grabbing stuff you're seeing this week.
It all hangs on whether + lasts and becomes popular, of if it's another flash in the pan like Wave was... And that's one heck of an enormous "if." But just as Facebook has been busy trying to insert itself into all your other web habits, Google may be able to beat it by building specific features into + itself. All of which could earn it more ad dollars, of course, and up its stake in the ad war with Facebook and Microsoft.
[Image: Flickr user scobleizer]