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Google+ opens its doors to the public

Anyone can now join the open beta of Google's social network, which has also been updated to provide more features for mobile devices and to allow broadcasts of Hangouts video chats
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Google has opened Google+ up to the public, following a 90-day invitation-only field trial.

Google+ Hangout

Google has opened Google+ to the public, and made updates to the Hangouts videoconference feature. Photo credit: CNET News

The social network is now in open beta, and anyone can sign up, Google engineering vice president Vic Gundotra said in a blog post on Tuesday. The company also announced the renaming of Google+'s 'Huddle' messaging system as 'Messenger', the ability to broadcast Hangouts multi-party video-chats to the public, and the option of collaborating on Google Docs through the Hangouts feature.

"For the past 12 weeks we've been in field trial, and during that time we've listened and learned a great deal," Gundotra wrote. "We're nowhere near done, but with the improvements we've made so far we're ready to move from field trial to beta, and introduce our 100th feature: open sign-ups. This way anyone can visit google.com/+, join the project and connect with the people they care about."

There are scant details about the number of people who currently use Google+, although ComScore said there were 25 million users a month joining the limited field trial. Leading social network Facebook, by way of contrast, has around 750 million users.

We're nowhere near done, but with the improvements we've made so far we're ready to move from field trial to beta.
– Vic Gundotra, Google

The launch of the public beta came shortly after Google released on Friday the first Google+ API, which allows developers to build apps that can automatically read data posted publicly on the service. Further APIs should stimulate a variety of third-party Google+ apps — beyond the games that already exist — and the company made a developer preview of the Hangouts API available on Tuesday.

The Hangouts API lets developers build web apps that can be used in the Google+ video-chat sessions. "Your app behaves like a normal web app, plus it can take part in the real-time conversation with new APIs, like synchronisation," Richard Dunn, the technical lead on Google+ platform for Hangouts, explained in another blog post.

However, there is still no word on when Google will allow businesses to set up their own pages on the social network, as they can on Facebook. The service is also not usable with Google Apps accounts, as those accounts do not yet support Google Profiles.

Google+ updates

Google+ first appeared on 28 June with many mobile-leaning features, including a group-messaging service called Huddle. In a separate blog post on Tuesday, Google+ mobile product manager Punit Soni introduced a number of updates to the mobile side of the social-networking tool, including the renaming of Huddle to Messenger and the introduction of the ability to share photos in a Messenger session.

The Google+ app can now be moved to the SD card on Android devices, so as to clear space on a phone's internal memory, Soni said. Mobile users of the social network can now edit their profile picture and customise which notifications they receive.

As part of the mobile refresh, people in the US and India gained the ability to post to Google+ using SMS, Soni said. Google+ users with iOS handsets can now '+1' a comment from their phones, with Android to follow soon. Mobile users can also add people's names into posts or comments.

However, the big mobile announcement, according to Soni, is the added ability to conduct Hangouts from phones with forward-facing cameras.

"Seeing someone face-to-face is one of the most important ways you can connect with them," Soni said. "Unfortunately we're often too busy, too far away, or too unpredictable to make meet-ups a regular occurrence. That's why we're making Hangouts available on phones with Android 2.3+ and front-facing cameras (iOS support coming soon)."

Public Hangouts

The option of broadcasting Hangouts videoconferences to the public is another key new feature.

"Sometimes you want to speak to a large audience, or alternatively, view as a spectator. In these cases, a public broadcast is what's needed, so today we're introducing Hangouts On Air," Gundotra wrote. "The setup is simple enough: just start a normal Hangout, and you'll have the option to broadcast and record your session. Once you're 'On Air', up to nine others can join your Hangout (as usual), and anyone can watch your live broadcast."

Gundotra pointed out that while any Google+ user can tune into Hangouts On Air, the company is starting with a limited set of broadcasters. The first On Air session will take place on Wednesday night, featuring Black Eyed Peas musician Will.i.am, who is also Intel's director of creative innovation.

Google also launched a preview of Hangouts with Extras, which provides more features for the videoconferencing service. These include screen-sharing, a collaborative sketchpad and integrated Google Docs group-editing functionality.

Finally, the company has improved the search function on Google+, allowing users to scour the social network for posts and people that match their interests.

"If you're into photography, for example, then you'll see other enthusiasts and lots of great pictures," Gundotra wrote. "If you care more about cooking, then you'll see other chefs and food from around the globe. In all cases, Google+ search results include items that only you can see, so family updates are just as easy to find as international news."

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