Google+ has moved from limited field-testing to beta in less than 90 days, and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) celebrated the graduation by launching several new features for the social network, including search and improved Hangouts.
The graduation from field test to beta means users no longer need an invitation to join Google+, the search-engine provider's alternative network to Facebook for information-sharing among friends, family, colleagues and complete strangers. Any user 18 and over may join the network here.
Google+ for the first time has search capabilities to let users tap into Google search to find interesting topics, posts, people and even information from the external Web. Users may simply type what they're looking for into the Google+ search box to see relevant content.
For any searches conducted on Google+, results will only include items that a user sees, said Vic Gundotra, Google's senior vice president of engineering.
The most improvements to Google+ come via Hangouts, the popular group Web conferencing application that lets up to 10 users hold court at once in the same browser-based video chat session.
Hangouts On Air is a hangout that lets users broadcast and record their session. When a user is "on air," up to nine other people can join the Hangout, though anyone can tune in to the live broadcast. The idea was likely inspired by early Google+ adopters such as Daria Musk, who performed her songs at set times on Hangouts.
For the time being, Google is beginning Hangouts On Air with a limited number of broadcasters. The company is hosting its first On Air hangout with Blackeyed Peas frontman will.i.am Sept. 21.
To encourage additional information-sharing via Hangouts, Google has also added screen-sharing, sketchpad for group doodling, named Hangouts, for users who want to create public Hangouts around a specific topic, and the ability to create Google Docs from Hangouts. These features are accessible by clicking the "Try Hangouts with extras" button in the Hangouts green room.
Google has also enabled Hangouts via users' mobile phones, which they can access by finding an active hangout in the Stream and tapping "join. "
Available in the Android Market here, Google+ Hangouts currently only supports Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" and newer devices with front-facing cameras.
The app will likely play well on the large screens of the 4.3-inch Motorola Droid Bionic and Samsung Epic 4G Touch, which boasts a 4.52-inch display. Support for Hangouts via Apple's iPhone is coming soon, said Punit Soni, Google+ mobile product manager, wrote in a blog post.
Users may now edit their profile photo from their Android mobile application, customize their notifications and move the Google+ application to SD storage on Android devices.
Other Google+ mobile improvements include better Short Message Service (SMS) support, allowing users in the U.S. and India to post to Google+, receive notifications and respond to group messages via SMS; improved +mentions support to let +[insert name] inside a post or comment to add users to a conversation; and the ability "to +1" comments from Google+ (for iOS but not yet for Android).
Finally, Google renamed its Huddle mobile group messaging application Messenger and adding photo-sharing.
Google says it launches products only when it feels they are ready for poking and prodding by its beloved consumers, but it wouldn't be a stretch to believe the company wants to remind users about Google+ before Facebook's F8 developer conference Thursday.
Facebook is expected to make several media-related integration announcements that boost information-sharing at its event.