It's no secret that Google's social network, Google+, has not been the success that Google had hoped it would be when it launched two years ago in 2011. Today, Google+ has about 190 million active users on its Google+ Stream, which doesn't sound too bad, but it's a far cry from the 1 billion users on Facebook. In an attempt to turn Google+ into a more serious competitor, Google's Senior VP of Engineering, Vic Gundotra, announced today at Google's annual I/O conference that no less than 41 new features would soon be coming to Google+.
The new Google+ will feature a multi-column stream that should be familiar to anyone who uses the iOS or Android versions of Google+. For those who don't, it's stylistically quite similar to Pinterest, with one, two or three columns of content depending on your device screen size and orientation. Photos and videos will fill the entire stream width.
The multi-column design allows for more content to be displayed, letting you scan for items of interest faster, rather than scrolling through endless content updates. The toolbar has also been simplified, with a neat row of icons now found under the status update bar, rather than the bloated left-hand navigation panel previously used.
Along with the visual overhaul, some nice new animations have also been added, such as a bouncing share box, and a window that flies out when you want to compose an update, which go a long way to making Google+ feel more polished and enjoyable to use.
One of the major new additions to Google+ is the introduction of Content Cards. Some content updates will now serve as an interactive Content Card (similar to Google Now cards), that can be clicked and flipped over to display comments and other related content. Google finds this content by automatically applying hashtags to photos. It does this by utilizing the power of its massive data centers and a complicated photo recognition algorithm so that, even without posting any words, you can take a picture of the Eiffel Tower and Google will recognize it and hashtag it with #EiffelTower. Clicking the content card will then turn it over and show other content related to the Eiffel Tower. If that sounds a bit creepy to you, the good news is that you can turn this feature off altogether, or delete incorrect auto hashtags, or add your own.
This video nicely shows off all of the changes made to the Google+ stream:
One of the defining features of Google+ has been its Circles feature, a tool that lets you share content with specific groups (coworkers, family, friends etc.). The new Hangouts app is a standalone app that adds a lot more utility to that idea, aimed at making chatting, sharing photos and video calling your circles easier.
The cross-platform app works across Android, Chrome, iOS and Gmail and lets you easily share images or text with any one of your contacts or if you prefer, everyone in one of your circles, with the tap of a button. People in the circle can enter and leave the chat freely, and there's even markers that display where in the chat different people have read up to.
Its best feature is the ability to video chat with up to nine people simultaneously, regardless of what platform they're on (for free!). You can also save a history of a group chat for years, which may be useful for anyone that wants to keep a record of important conversations.
While the improvements to the stream and Hangouts are nice new additions, Photos is definitely the major focus, moving forward for Google's social networking push. Gundotra demonstrated many of the new photography features available in Google+, many of which are only possibly thanks to Google's powerful data centers. As Gundotra put it, "your darkroom is now a Google data center."
The first feature Gundotra showed off is Auto Highlight. He showed off some of the 686 pictures he took on a recent vacation, but lamented that he has no time to sort through them to pick out the best ones. Google can now do that for you. Using an algorithm designed to sift through your album and remove any duplicates, blurry images and poor exposures, it will instead highlight people you care about, famous landmarks and other positive attributes. It can even detect and pick out pictures where people are smiling. Once your highlight album has been created, you can always manually review it and add or remove other pictures.
Auto Enhance basically Photoshops your pictures for you with some commonly applied Photoshop filters and effects. It's somewhat similar to Google's own Picasa Auto Correct, but looks in the demo Gundotra showed off, looked far more impressive, correcting for contrast, saturation, structure, noise and even touching up skin tone and adding vignetting if it thinks it will focus interest on the subject. Each process can be turned on or off depending on your own personal preference.
Auto Awesome is probably the most interesting of Google+'s new Photo features. Essentially it stitches together batches of photos, depending on what kind of photos they are. So, for example, a series of photos in order will be automatically stitched together to create an animated gif, while a batch of the same family portraits can be combined into one multiple exposure shot where everyone is smiling at the same time. Auto Awesome can also do collages and panoramas automatically.
Google is clearly redoubling its efforts and strengthening its commitment to its social network with these new Google+ features. Will they be enough to chip into Facebook's market share? While we've likely seen all of the major enhancements, not all of the 41 new features have been fully revealed yet, and Google's I/O conference still has two days to go, so stay tuned for future updates.
For now, we've been told that all of these features will be rolling out over the next week, with many (including Hangouts, Photos and the new Google+ Stream) already available to try right now.