Google+ hasn't exactly set the world on fire, but it's not for lack of trying. Google has invested heavily in its challenge to the mighty Facebook and at Google I/O 2013, the search giant announced it is adding a whopping 41 new features to its social-networking platform.
The improvements include new design elements, Hangout features, photo-editing tools, and expanded free storage available to users of Google+. Google senior vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra said the additions were part of the company's goal of "letting the technology get out of the way" of the people using the social network.
"Frankly, even Google's own services have been fragmented and confused at times," Gundotra said. The Google+ team's goal is to ensure that the three main forms of social media communication — text, photos, and video — all work equally well on the platform, regardless of the device or operating system being used by Google+ members.
The new Google+ features are being rolled out today across Android, iOS, and the web.
Google+ will now offer 15GB of free storage for photo backup to users, up from 5GB. That's important, because Google is seeking to differentiate its platform from the likes of Facebook and Twitter by preserving photos at their full, original resolution.
"Some memories are not meant to be downsized and we give you that ability on Google+," Gundotra said.
The platform has also added some pretty impressive new photo management and editing tools. One, called Highlight, will select the "best pictures" from an album containing a large amount of photos - for example, pictures taken on a holiday.
"It's remarkably accurate," Gundotra explained, mapping out how Google's machine-learning algorithms can do everything from dispense with blurry and badly exposed photos to calculating the "aesthetics" of a shot and seeking out pictures with people expressing upbeat emotions.
Google has also created an automated tool suite called Auto Enhance for sprucing up photos. Google+ users can now opt to have their pictures automatically scrubbed of noise and sharpened. The Auto Enhance suite is particularly focused on improving the look of people in users' photographs — Gundotra's demonstration of new automated tonal distribution and skin softening filtering was especially impressive.
There are also some new Google+ photo management tools that Gundotra described as Google's "gift" to users. Those were headlined by the Auto Awesome tool, which is essentially a .gif generator that creates a short animation out of several photos, as well as Mix, which creates photo collages, and Pano, which stitches together shots to make a panoramic view.
Elsewhere, Google has made some tweaks to its popular Hangouts video-chat mechanism. Hangouts can now be accessed as a standalone app, which preserves the history of conversations. Group video chatting has also been made more fluid — and it's still absolutely free, Gundotra stressed.
Design-wise, Google+ can now be viewed in a single or multi-column layout. There's also some cool new eye candy, particularly the larger photo presentation and the ability to "flip" pictures on your Google+ page.
Google is also adding related hashtags to the Google+ stream, whereby the search giant will tag certain posts with keywords, allowing you to click on them and read more about the same topic.
Google launched its social network as an invitation-only service on 28 June, 2011. Google+ currently has about half a billion registered users — making it the second biggest social network in the world behind Facebook — but the average user reportedly spends far less time on the site than users of the larger social network.