Google+ Updated for Enterprise Users as Consumer Version Shuts Down

NEWS ANALYSIS: Google+ had a major vulnerability, but it wasn't a breach and Google+ isn't entirely dead (yet) either.

Google Plus Gone

If you're not a regular user of the Google Plus+ networking service, you're not alone as the consumer service first announced by Google in 2011 has never been a challenger to incumbents like Facebook.

At long last, after seven years in the market, Google announced on Oct. 8 that it was shutting down Google+. Rumors of Google+ demise have been circulating for at least the last three years. This time, however, the shutdown isn't a rumor, but it isn't a complete shutdown either.

Google+ has both consumer and enterprise versions. Only the consumer version is being "sunset" in Google parlance, while the enterprise edition that is integrated with G Suite will continue. The Google+ shutdown was not triggered directly by low usage as many had suspected would eventually happen, but rather due to a security bug.

That security bug could have enabled third-party applications to get access to user data not marked as being public. The data was limited to Google+ profile fields and did not include other data, according to Google.

"We discovered and immediately patched this bug in March 2018," Ben Smith, Google Fellow and vice president of engineering, wrote in a blog post. "We believe it occurred after launch as a result of the API’s interaction with a subsequent Google+ code change."

Although Google discovered and patched the bug in March, it made no public disclosure until Oct. 8. According to Smith, up to 438 applications may have used the API that had the security bug, and the profiles of up to 500,000 Google+ accounts were potentially affected. 

"We found no evidence that any developer was aware of this bug, or abusing the API, and we found no evidence that any Profile data was misused," Smith wrote.

Given that there was little if any impact on any users, as no data was actually breached, Google decided it didn't need to disclose the issue sooner. Google did decide, however, that the resources it needed to invest to keep Google+ and its associated APIs safe were no longer a wise investment.

"The review did highlight the significant challenges in creating and maintaining a successful Google+ that meets consumers’ expectations," Smith said. "Given these challenges and the very low usage of the consumer version of Google+, we decided to sunset the consumer version of Google+."

Google+ is not immediately disappearing though, with a plan to keep the consumer service running for 10 more months, until August 2019.

Google+ for Enterprise

On Oct. 11, three short days after announcing the shutdown and security flaw issues in the consumer version of Google+, Google announced a series of new enterprise-grade features in Google+ for G Suite.

"As a part of our new posting experience for Google+ in G Suite, employees will be able to direct and discover content in a new way—tags," David Conway, product manager at Google, wrote in a blog post. "Even if you don’t know all employees across an organization, tags makes it easier to route content to the right folks."

Additionally, Google+ for G Suite will be adding a feature that enables custom streams for users to receive topical information. Post analytics are also set to get a boost with a capability that will enable users to see how content is viewed by different parts of a company.

So why is Google+ for G Suite continuing while the consumer version is not? Simply put, Google+ still serves a critical collaboration feature within G Suite, which is needed. G Suite users also pay Google, which helps to support the costs of securing Google+. Additionally, enterprises often configure more granular controls and user groups, while consumers are more open to the entire internet.

User Data Policy

In the wake of the Google+ flaw, Google is also tightening up its User Data Policy for the Gmail API that is used for consumers.

"Only apps directly enhancing email functionality—such as email clients, email backup services and productivity services (e.g., CRM and mail merge services)—will be authorized to access this data," David Thacker, Google’s vice president of product management for G Suite, wrote in a blog post. "Moreover, these apps will need to agree to new rules on handling Gmail data and will be subject to heightened security assessments."

No doubt there will be some users that will lament the loss of the consumer edition of Google+, and you can count me among them. Google+ was a less noisy social networking tool that was useful for many different specific areas of technology, including Linux and open source. That said, there is no shortage of alternatives in the social networking landscape.

The fact that a security bug triggered the final demise of Google+ for consumers and not the enterprise provides an interesting data point. It shows that for one of the world's largest technology vendors, it's easier and more profitable to secure enterprise collaboration than consumer social networking.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.