As a social network and identity platform, Google+ has had a lukewarm reception. But the service has had a pair of breakout features: Hangouts and photos.
Google announced updates to both tools on Tuesday in a San Francisco art gallery decorated in photos taken by Google+ users.
The company has spent the past two years forcefully pushing Google+ into every nook and cranny of Google products. It says there are now 540 million active Google+ users across Google, meaning they use some Google+-ified Google product in some way or another.
The number of people actually opening up Google+ and checking out its stream of posts is lower, at 300 million visitors a month. For comparison, Facebook has just more than 1 billion monthly active users.
The problem with pictures
One number that does pop out is the amount of photos people are sharing to the service. Google says 1.5 billion photographs are uploaded every week. (Facebook says it has about 2.4 billion a week, or 350 million a day.)
Digital photography and mobile devices with decent cameras have created a monster. People have thousands of photos, hours of videos, and not enough time to cut through the noise, edit and share images.
"Photography today is too hard," said Google senior vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra at the press conference. "People have beautiful treasures that have become stranded in these devices."
Google has been focusing on making tools that automate as much of the process as possible. Hobbyists and professional photographers might enjoy carefully editing images, but average people just want to share their best vacation or family photos and move on.
When you upload photos to Facebook or Instagram, the images are compressed. For the people who use social media as a kind of backup, this can be a disadvantage down the line when they want a higher-resolution version of their image. Google+ is automatically uploading images at their full resolution, and soon the feature will come to iOS.
Auto highlights, which was first was announced at the Google i/o developers conference, digs through all your images and picks out the best shots, eliminating duplicates, looking for sharpness and good exposures, and finding people it knows are important to you.
The search feature has added thousands of new automatic tags like waterfall, sunset and beach, as well as less obvious categories like "hedgehog" and "manicure." That means you can search for pics of your daughter Sally in front a waterfall wearing sunglasses (and possibly holding a hedgehog) and get the exact images that fit that description.
There are also improved editing features, like auto-enhance, which can be toggled to high or low. If you agree with Google's taste in photos and editing tweaks, it can save you hours of work.
Videos are even more labor-intensive than photos. The humbly named "Auto Awesome Movie," takes over in much the same way Apple's iMovie automatically creates trailers. It can stabilize videos, sync the action with music tracks, add filters and edit clips together with minimal input from the user.
"This is not some little local client editing system," said Gundotra. "This is the power of Google -- of machine learning applied to photos and videos."
Hangouts are for texting and GIFs
Hangouts is Google's communication tool that dabbles in chatting, video conferencing and live broadcasting.
Hangouts on Air is popular for politicians and celebrities who want to broadcast a live chat. President Barack Obama has done Q&As using the tool in the past. Google added features to schedule and promote Hangouts On Air before they happen, more control for producers screening questions and moderating viewers, and auto-enhance features to improve video quality.
Video calls are now higher quality and can go fullscreen. If you'd like to make your call look more like an Instagram stream, you can add filters or auto-enhance.
FInally, to fully cover all the communication options in chats, Google is adding SMS support so people can send text messages directly from the Hangouts app. Most important, Hangouts now support our most advanced method of communication, the animated GIF. (It already allowed the second-most advanced method, the emoji.)