Is Google+ about to become a negative?

April 28, 2014, 11:51 PM UTC

With self-driving cars, a wearable computer worn like eyewear and solar-powered, high-pressure balloons that bring 3G-level Internet connectivity to emerging markets, Google (GOOG) remains one of the most futuristic companies in tech. But one of its initiatives — the social network Google+ — is making the company look decidedly backward.

Since Google+ launched two years ago, the social network has not had it easy. Observers have asked whether the social network can succeed in a space already dominated by Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR). Certainly, it didn’t help that Google+ arrived seven years after Facebook, which meant a lot of catching up. (Indeed, Facebook’s ex-director of game partnerships Sean Ryan once ribbed the platform for not having users.)

“I think Google just missed that opportunity,” said Gartner Research Director Brian Blau, referring to consumers’ pent-up desire in the mid-2000s to connect and engage with their friends and family members online. “It’s an uphill battle, especially when you’re competing on Facebook’s terms.”

Indeed, as the 2011 book In the Plex explained, Google+ wasn’t a forward-thinking initiative so much as a massive company effort to catch up in social networking.

Adding to the speculation about the demise of Google+ was Google senior vice president Vic Gundotra’s departure last week after eight years with the tech giant. It raised questions about whether Google+ was on life support, with tech site TechCrunch citing anonymous sources saying Google+ development would be throttled back from being a major product to more of a behind-the-scenes platform. The absence of Gundotra now, who led Google+ development and integration, could be viewed as an onerous sign.

Google has certainly been extremely aggressive in the way it has expanded Google+’s reach and user base, integrating it into many of its own services, including Gmail, and taking Facebook’s lead with features, such as the ability to sign into services with a Google+ account or a +1 button across Internet content. All those efforts have translated into a reported 300 million monthly active users uploading 1.5 billion photos a week to Google services as of October.

“What if they played up photos and videos and cut back on text further?” suggested Blau, who argues that photography and video are among the few areas where the social network can match its rivals.

Regardless, there may be life yet in Google+, with or without Gundotra. Google VP of engineering and six-year company veteran David Besbris is said to be Gundotra’s heir apparent and has been described by his former colleagues as a “force of nature” and a “visionary leader.”

“He’s able to navigate the realities of the present, while simultaneously charting the possibilities of the future,” wrote John Robinson, a former AOL (AOL) coworker, on Besbris’ LinkedIn (LNKD) profile. Those are the qualities that will likely prove handy if Google+ is to continue, even in a diminished role.

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