Google exec fuels talk that Google+ may be split up

Sundar Pichai hints that the social network could be broken up, separating Hangouts

Hangouts main screen

Google has kicked up speculation about the future of its social network Google+.

Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of products for Google, made comments in a recent interview with Forbes that prompted speculation the company is contemplating breaking Google+ into pieces or tearing it down all together.

When asked whether Google+ will remain "one big product," Pichai replied: "I think increasingly you'll see us focus on communications [Hangouts], photos and the Google+ stream as three important areas, rather than being thought of as one area."

Just before that, Pichai also noted that Google+ is more than just a social network for the company. It also serves as the glue between many of its products and services. Google+, he said, offers a common login and identity across its services.

Google today declined to comment on Pichai's interview and what he meant about the future of Google+.

Google+, which launched in late June 2011, has consistently failed to meet expectations that a Google-owned social network could compete neck-and-neck with Facebook, the world's largest social network.

While Google+ features, like Hangouts and Circles, have proven popular, the site itself hasn't gained the kind of user base that can take a real bite out of Facebook.

"It's obvious that Google+ hasn't been the home run that Google envisioned when they launched it a few years ago," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "They did, and are still doing, everything they can to push social networking traffic onto Google+, but it still hasn't turned into a credible Facebook, Twitter, or even LinkedIn competitor."

Olds said that he doesn't expect Google to simply tear Google+ down to the ground, but he can envision the company putting more muscle behind features like Hangouts, possibly making it a stand-alone product.

"I think Google needs to concentrate on a particular feature of Google+, like Hangouts, and build a really outstanding tool that provides a great customer experience," said Olds. "With unique features, they could sidestep their competition by, for example, providing much better real-time communications than Facebook, while giving users a more flexible and robust experience than Skype."

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said he doubts Google will give up on Google+ just yet, but he thinks it's a lost cause for the company.

"For the first time, I view [Pichai's} comments as they will eventually tear Google+ down," he added. "I get the sense that Google+ is over and has completely faded into the background.... Google+ is done."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, agrees, noting that the company needs Google+ to tie its different products together. But the social network itself will become less of an attraction; features, like Hangouts, will come to the forefront.

"That would give them multiple streams, and not just one," he added. "I think they need Google+, but it can't be the attraction itself, so why not make the network a feature of Hangouts?"

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