Google Plus, the social networking service that has long been in a restricted field test, is now officially in beta. That's right, folks, you can stop leaving comments on this post asking people to invite you and just head on over and sign up yourself because Google Plus is now open to the public. The doors have been thrown open wide and all are welcome.
Google Plus Open To All
One of the biggest frustrations with Google Plus to date, at least for me personally, has been the limitations on the number of users. While there are millions of them, it pales in comparison to the number of people on Facebook. Most of the Google Plus users I know have even started to slow in their posting there, because their audience is still so small.
But now all that could change, because there's about to be a barnstorm. No more waiting for invitations to open up. No more walls. Google Plus is out in the wild, and anyone can take part. Just in case I didn't make that link in the first paragraph obvious enough...
New Video Features In Google Plus Hangouts
Now, let's talk about some of the amazing new features Google Plus is adding to video. There are several new and updated features across the board, but many have to do with Hangouts--the live video chat service.
You can now use Google Plus Hangouts to chat live, on video, from your mobile device. Awesome. And you don't even need to download a new app--it's a new update rolling out today for the Google Plus app many users already have installed. Sadly, it only works on Android 2.3 devices and higher. And obviously, only on devices with a front-facing camera.
But if you have both, this is a sweet new addition to hangouts, allowing you to be even more mobile than ever while still maintaining instant video contact with up to 10 people.
Live Video Broadcasts With Hangouts On Air
You can now use Google Plus Hangouts as a broadcasting tool. Simply set up a standard Hangout, and choose the new option for "broadcast." You can even record your broadcast and use it later, and anyone you open your Hangout to can watch your live broadcast. It doesn't sound like there's even any limit to the number of viewers, and in fact On Air is intended to help you reach larger audiences.
There's one big caveat, of course: broadcasting privileges are limited... by Google. That means they're going to hand pick the accounts that can use the feature, much like the way YouTube chooses channels for the Partner program. But it could open up wider pretty soon, and could make a pretty awesome communication tool for businesses.
Hangouts With Extras
Hangouts now also has a cool set of "extras," any one of which would be awesome on their own:
Screensharing - You can now share your screen through Hangouts, whether you're showing viewers a website, a document, or whatever else you may have up on screen.
Sketchpad - A simple drawing tool, which all participants can use at the same time.
Google Docs - Google Docs is now integrated into Hangouts, which is awesome.
Named Hangouts - When creating a public hangout, you can now give it a custom name centered around the reason or topic for your session.
These extras are "still under construction." That means you have to opt in to be able to use them. There's a "Try Hangouts with extras" button in the green room.
For developers, there's now a set of Hangouts APIs, which you can tinker with to build your own apps or games. You can read more about the API here.
Google Plus Search
Not all of the features added to Google Plus had to do with Hangouts and video. For instance, you can now search within the service for Google Plus content. Google says they'll return "relevant people and posts, as well as popular content from around the web." It's an obvious attempt to help users find new people to connect with and follow, but it's also a highly-requested feature by users.
Google Plus Mobile App Features
There are also a host of new fixes, updates, and features to the Google Plus mobile app. They include a new Messenger service (replacing the old Huddle feature) with photo-sharing capabilities, the ability to edit your profile photo, customized notifications, and more. You can read all about them on the Google Mobile blog.
I've been banging the gong for Hangouts as a business tool for a while now, in part because I've been using it as one, and it's quite effective. And the new features added today will make it even more useful and appealing for even more applications in the workplace--think about a CEO who uses the new On Air broadcasting feature to address his employees before the work day, or the field workers collaborating on a project--through video--while thousands of miles apart.
And now that Google Plus is open to anyone and everyone who wants in, there's a greater chance we'll start seeing and hearing about how Hangouts can help businesses and individuals connect and engage.
Outside of Hangouts and video, the open beta should breathe a bit of new life into a service that was starting to make some analysts worry about a drop-off. I still don't see a mass exodus of people from Facebook to Google Plus--in fact, most of my friends have been maintaining both accounts. But it should bring in a ton of new users to friend, follow, add to circles, or interact with on Hangouts.
Oh, and one last time for good measure: you can sign up for Google Plus here.
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