Google+ is opening up. The service that the enthusiastic and curious once begged to join is now open to anyone with a Google account, except those unfortunate Apps users (what’s up with that?). Users new and old also get to play with plenty of new desktop and mobile toys to remind them what was exciting about G+ in the first place. New APIs even let developers in on the fun.
So what’s new? For starters, Google’s finally adding the biggest and most-requested no-brainer of all: search.
As you can see from the photo, in the search box that once found only other profiles, users can search over “everything” (i.e., the web), “people,” “Google+ posts,” or “Sparks” (the lightweight Google News front end embedded in G+). Results can then be filtered by “most recent” or “Best of.” The algorithm determining “best” search results in G+ is unclear, but it’s likely some combination of best keyword matches, posts by users in your circles, plus +1 upvotes and/or reshares.
As Google+’s added users and entries, it’s accumulated a lot of content, from blog posts to photos and videos. In order to become a meaningful repository for this media, not just an ephemeral stream, it needs to be searchable. Google may have wanted its social product to stand on its own for a while, rather than becoming an easily-bypassed front end for search like iGoogle. Really, though, Google went about as far as they could go with G+ without building in search. It will make G+ much more usable.
Google+’s most attractive eye-candy feature, Hangouts, also gets a lot more powerful. More than half of the new features to the desktop version of G+ concern Hangouts. These include four Hangout “extras” that allow users to share more content than just YouTube videos:
- Screen-sharing (exactly what it sounds like);
- Named Hangouts, so users can specify with whom they’d like to hang out and/or what they want to talk about;
- Sketchpad, which lets users draw/doodle in real-time;
- and Google Docs, which lets hangout members collaborate on word processing, spreadsheet or other documents.
What’s notable about these extras? They’re equally conducive to silly goofing off as they are to serious real-time collaboration. You can slowly sketch “I H-8 U” to a friend who’s teasing you, virtually help your son or daughter with homework, or plan your workgroup’s agenda for the day. I don’t know if Google Hangouts are as secure or stable as some professional-grade teleconferencing apps, but they certainly have gained a lot of their features.
Finally, the new generation of Google+ mobile apps will let you participate in Hangouts from your smartphone. So far, only Android 2.3 users (with appropriate cameras and wireless connections, of course) can get in on mobile Hangouts, but Google says an updated iOS app is making its way through Apple’s store and will land soon, too.
This is handy in part because it works much like Apple’s FaceTime (if you’re an iPhone user), but I think it’s generally a good thing that Google is pushing for a continuity of features between its mobile and desktop versions. When Google+ first launched, its mobile and desktop versions seemed quite different from each other, not always in a positive sense, with desktop Hangouts shut out from mobile Huddles and vice versa. Google seems set now on providing a single service across all devices rather than just a single login.
The mobile app is simply much better than it was at launch or even a week ago. Besides Hangouts, the new Android 2.3 app (and forthcoming iOS version) adds most of the missing features from the desktop version, including +mentions (similar to @-mentions on Twitter), the ability to +1 comments (similar to Likes on Facebook), manage local storage, customize notifications, and upload and edit profile pictures — a handy feature to have on a device with a camera attached.
(Note: It’s possible that some of these features, like disk space management, may not be available for the iOS app; Google’s blog post on the matter is ambiguous, and Google didn’t immediately return a request for clarification as to whether there will be full feature parity between Android and iOS.)
The mobile-only features now include almost entirely those that make sense to be mobile-only, from SMS text-message notifications to “Messenger,” which is the “Huddle” standing group text/IM service rechristened, now with photo-sharing. “Huddle” always was a confusing name, suggesting both football and group sex; plus, it was inevitably confused with “Hangout.” “Messenger” is more generic, but for that reason, doesn’t have quite the same baggage.