Google exec fuels talk that Google+ may be split up

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

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?"

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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