Google+ opens up, takes fight to Facebook

Tue Sep 20, 2011 4:27pm EDT

A man works on Google logo at an exhibition stand at the CeBIT computer fair in Hanover February 28, 2011. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

A man works on Google logo at an exhibition stand at the CeBIT computer fair in Hanover February 28, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Tobias Schwarz

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(Reuters) - Google Inc and Facebook trotted out a variety of new social networking features in back-to-back announcements on Tuesday, underscoring their intensifying competition for Web surfers.

Google integrated its flagship search engine into its 3-month old social network -- with membership now open to the Internet public -- and expanded its "Hangouts" video-chat feature to allow mobile use and broadcasting.

The company said on its official blog its well-received Hangouts feature -- where up to nine people can link up and chat with a user on video -- will be available on camera equipped smartphones powered by its own Android software. Support for Apple Inc iOS devices "is coming soon", it added.

And a user can now host an online broadcast with this feature -- recording a session and broadcasting it live for public access online. Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am will host the first "Hangout on Air" on Wednesday, Google said.

"Hangouts should keep pace with how you socialize in the real-world, so today we're launching it on the one device that's always by your side: your mobile phone," senior vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra said on the blog post.

For its part, Facebook said it was introducing a new "ticker" on its users' home pages, providing real-time notifications of what friends are doing on the service. Facebook also revamped the service's main news feed to flag important items -- such as a new baby announcement -- for Facebook users who have not logged on for a few days. Facebook also changed the way photos are displayed on the site, increasing the size of pictures that appear in a users' news feed.

Facebook is the world's No.1 social networking service, with more than 750 million users. The company has rolled out a series of improvements to its service recently, many of which seem designed to match features Google has used to set apart its rival social networking service, Google+.

Google did not say how many people had signed up for Google+ so far, but confirmed the social network was now open to all, whereas previously it had been invitation-only. Analysts estimate upward of 25 million users have joined Google+ since its inception.

The company also made its search engine available from within the social network. Users can search from Google+ and get results not just on the network, but from the worldwide Internet.

Google's infant social network, which counts Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a member, has met skepticism so far. Some are waiting to see if it can maintain the rapid momentum of its first months.

If CEO Larry Page's brainchild -- which some say mimics better than Facebook the instinctive categorizing of friends that occurs in real life -- takes off, it will come at a pivotal moment for its bigger rival. Facebook is widely expected to go public in 2012.

"We're nowhere near done, but with the improvements we've made so far we're ready to move from field trial to beta," Gundotra said.

(Reporting by Edwin Chan and Alexei Oreskovic; editing by Andre Grenon)

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