Making Sense Of Google's New Social Stuff: Messaging, Hangouts & Google+

With a whirlwind of announcements at its Google I/O developers conference this week, Google's vast suite of social products is finally starting to look like it was created by a single company and not cobbled together via a series of haphazard acquisitions. Here are the highlights of what's changed:

Hangouts: Google Messaging, Unmessy At Last

Google is finally doing something to prune its thicket of messaging products. Let's start with a look at the various chat and messaging products that were due for some much-needed spring cleaning:
  • Google Talk. Talk was Google's Instant Message client. It's also called Google Chat or "GChat," by many people who didn't even know it was called Talk to begin with.
  • Google+ Hangouts. Hangouts was Google+'s group video chat service, from the social network's launch back in 2011.
  • Google+ Messenger: A product redundant with Google Talk, Messenger was Google+'s own IM client.
  • Google Voice: Google's cult-hit digital telephony client, Voice allows users to route all their calls to one phone number. Google Voice works for calls and texting both on desktop and on its much-neglected mobile apps for iOS and Android. 

Now, Hangouts becomes the messaging mini-umbrella under the social mega-umbrella of Google+. Hangouts, now available across desktop and mobile, will unify Google Talk, Google+ Messenger and the old Hangouts video chat service of yore. 

According to a statement from Nikhyl Singhal, Google's head honcho of real-time communications, Google Voice will be folded into Hangouts too (Yay!), though there's no word on when.

Google+ Gets A Lot Of Love

Messaging may have been the messiest area of Google's social services, but Google+ is the big umbrella that covers them all. Amidst the company's epic 3-hour-plus Google I/O keynote yesterday, Google+ guru Vic Gundotra announced approximately one million updates to Google+, the social network that the company launched two years ago. Okay, he pegged the number at 41… but that's almost a million.
 

The updates are extensive. As a regular Google+ user, it's actually difficult to get a sense for what changed, since the redesign looks and feels right in stride with Google's recent overall changes in user interfaces that runs from Google+ to Google Glass to Google Now and Android. So here's a list of some of the most notable of the 41 updates:
  • A multi-column layout. This can be toggled off, if you're still into the Blogger single-column-era.
  • Photos and videos get even bigger. Google is really into making media massive - and we would be too if the average person knew how to share properly high-res photos.
  • New animations. Things are flipping and sliding all over the place in there.
  • A third dimension. You can scroll up and down through your social stream, but Google wants you to be able to scroll in too. Now you can take a deeper dive on a given Google+ post -or is it a Card? I think we're suppose to call everything Cards now -- via related hashtags, which will lead you to more content of interest. It will also take you further down the Google+ rabbit hole, of course.
  • Lots of treats for photographers. Google+ has a thriving community of awesome photogs, and Google is keen to do right by them. Photos in Google+ now have all sorts of cool bells and whistles. A few I'm particularly stoked about include "auto highlight," which de-emphasizes duplicate and blurry pics, automatically picking the best shot out of a batch. I've yet to test this extensively, but since I have a habit of bracketing (taking multiple shots at different exposures) - even on my phone - choosing the best photo of a set can be a major timesuck. This feature could help there. Another feature, "Auto Awesome," can stitch together shots in a series to make a playful Photobooth-esque picture or even a Vine-like animated gif.


For a full breakdown of Google's social updates, hit the company's official blog post or just cruise around in Google+ for a while. The  the social network has been the butt of many a joke over the last few years, and we're happy to see Google take the time to spruce things up a little.

 

Photos by Nick Statt for ReadWrite.