Google+ has shed its invite-only status, and is now open to all in public beta. That’d be a bigger deal if the service wasn’t already open to anyone with a Google account, and if existing members didn’t each have 150 additional invites to hand out.
The real news here is about Google+ Hangouts, which began as a 10-way video calling service but is now showing grander aspirations.
Through a new feature called “Extras,” Google+ users will be able to collaborate on documents, share what’s on their computer screens and draw together on a communal canvas. (If the expanding scope and eye toward collaboration reminds you of Google Wave, recall that Hangouts uses the same technology as that failed project.)
Google is also adding an API for Hangouts, so developers can bring games and other new features to the video chat service. Google’s own YouTube video player, which is built into Hangouts, is the first example of how the API can be used.
Google+ Hangouts is also adding new features for video chat. Mobile phone support is now available on Android 2.3 smartphones and is coming soon to the iPhone. A new “Hangouts On Air” feature will allow select users to host one-way live broadcasts (starting with the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am. on September 21). And public Hangouts–another “Extra”–will allow users to congregate around specific topics.
All these new features make Hangouts seem more like its own service, rather than something that’s inherently tied to Google+. The features that Google is adding today have little bearing on the rest of the social network–not yet, anyway–and from the beginning video chats have launched in a separate window, further isolating them. If Google+ crashed and burned, Hangouts would probably survive.
Or, to look at it another way, Hangouts is the perfect example of what Google+ is supposed to be. The “Google+ project”–as the company insists on calling it–is not mainly about posting status updates and adding +1s to what other people write. It’s about adding a social layer to services that are already useful on their own. And Hangouts just became a lot more useful.