Google+ wants you and your photos to never, ever leave

Google+ has struggled to persuade the Internet that it’s more than Facebook Lite, so Google’s social network is taking a new approach: repositioning itself as a hub for photographers.

It’s not exactly an abrupt shift for the network, which overhauled its image and launched new photo enhancement and organization tools at Google I/O in May. But Google vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra on Tuesday made photography the prime focus of Google+ going forward with a slew of new photo and video features.

Gundotra announced that Google+ has 300 million monthly active users today, up from 190 million in May, uploading 1.5 billion photos to the network each week. It took Google+ a year and a half to grow to 190 million active users in the social stream—not just users signed in to other services with a Google+ login—so another 110 million in less than six months is a pretty impressive feat. Photos are key for the network, which needs to set itself apart from Facebook and the hundreds of social apps chomping at its heels.

Now you can turn Auto Enhance on high to turn your beach scene into a stunning work of art.

Put a filter on it

Gundotra demoed 18 new features in Google+ at a San Francisco warehouse on Tuesday in a tribute to the photographers whose work lined the walls.

Many of the features were proof positive that the Instagram-ification of photography is complete. Forget Photoshop; we want an app that will retouch our latte art until its richness bleeds through the screen.

“Photography today is too hard,” Gundotra said. “When I go on vacation, my table is a mass of cables and memory cards and DSLRs and lenses, not to mention more and more photography is taking place on mobile devices. This is not fun. It’s a nightmare. People have beautiful treasures that have become stranded in these various devices.”

Google+ wants to be the place you store, organize, edit, and share those photos. Not to other networks, though—just within Google+.

The stand-out features were improvements to the network’s Auto Enhance function, which edit your photos without any work on your part. Now you can lower or raise the levels of Auto Enhance from low to high, and control that setting on an album-by-album basis.

A couple of other gimmicky tools that Google+ users might fall in love with are Action, which distills several frames of motion into one action shot, and Eraser, which eliminates any unwanted objects that may have entered the frame. Eraser is a tourist’s dream—no more grumpy New Yorkers crossing into your awesome street shot.

On the video front, Google+ added Auto Awesome Movie for creating films out of photos, short clips, and a soundtrack of your choosing, which calls to mind a low-grade iMovie experiment. But, hey, people love creating videos, as Instagram and Vine can attest to.

Annoying people are always blocking your shot. Now you can simply erase them.

If your photography skills are more on the professional side, Google added filters to its photo editors, both the browser-based Snapseed and the Nik Collection, Google's $149 suite of plug-ins for Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Photoshop Lightroom, and Aperture. Those are the only editors that can post images to Google+, since there are no APIs to let other apps post images on the network—only Google's own products can do that.

Better Hangouts

Google+ also wants to be the place where you have all your conversations, so the network is updating its stand-alone Hangouts app for Android to support SMS texts. Now you don’t have to leave the Hangouts app to keep messaging with friends. This fits with Google’s goal: That you never, ever leave Google+, especially not to use other messaging services.

Hangouts gets in on some animated GIF action.

“You don’t have to deal with multiple clients,” Gundotra said.

What he meant: Feel free to delete Snapchat, Android users.

Google is also enabling one-tap location-sharing—powered by Google Maps, of course—within the Hangouts app, plus animated GIF viewing. Yeah, animated GIFs. That’s something Facebook doesn’t have. Auto Awesome is also coming to video calls on Hangouts, so you can put a filter on your live-action self. Those updates are rolling out in the next few days for Hangouts for Android users. Gundotra didn't say whether the Hangouts improvements will hit iOS anytime soon.

Back on the desktop, Google added some improvements to Hangouts on Air, the company's quest to bring big names like President Barack Obama down to average Google+ users. Now Google lets users create dedicated landing pages to promote Hangout events and added tools to help manage those events once they start.

The Google+ niche

If Facebook is a place for friends, then Google+ can be the place for photos. Videos, too. Being just another social network isn’t an option, not when the landscape is so cluttered. Google+ has some power behind it—now it just needs people to actually post.

Gundotra and co. are betting that catering to photographers—both professionals and those of us who let our smartphones do most of the work—will set Google’s social network apart. Gundotra reiterated several times that Google+ wants to revolutionize photography and help people tell stories with their images. They just might be onto something.

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