After almost eight years with Google, Vic Gundotra announced he was leaving the company to pursue new ventures. Gundotra, of course, was the engineer in charge of Google+. "This is a group of people who built social at Google against the skepticism of so many," Gundotra wrote in a farewell post on his Plus page. "The growth of active users is staggering, and speaks to the work of this team."
The question now is where Gundotra's departure leaves Google+, a social network that has been described as everything from "a ghost town" to—in the incidental words of one of its own engineers—a "complete failure." TechCrunch editors Alexia Tsotsis and Matthew Panzarino report that the Google+ team will be reshuffled, according to two sources, and the Google Hangouts team will be integrated with the folks behind Android. "Basically," they write, "talent will be shifting away from the Google+ kingdom and towards Android as a platform, we’re hearing." The report continues:
We've heard Google has not yet decided what to do with the teams not going to Android, and that Google+ is not "officially" dead, more like walking dead: "When you fire the top dog and take away all resources it is what it is." It will take copious amounts of work for it to un-zombie, if that’s even a possibility.
Naturally, the company denied that Plus was joining Google Reader, Wave, and countless others in the Great Google Graveyard. "Today's news has no impact on our Google+ strategy," said a Google representative. "We have an incredibly talented team that will continue to build great user experiences across Google+, Hangouts and Photos."
When Google+ was unveiled in 2011, most people projected it to be a Facebook competitor, or, to a lesser extent, a place for tech obsessives to quickly share ideas a la Twitter. Both turned out to be somewhat off the mark, and in the time since, Facebook ballooned to well over a billion users worldwide, while Twitter became a legitimate place to advertise while trying to win over non-techies.
By social networking metrics, maybe Google+ and its 540 million monthly active users did constitute a failure. "Google may have built a solid second-place rival to Facebook in terms of being a full-featured social network, but that’s like Bing being a solid search challenger to Google," writes Danny Sullivan at Marketing Land. "It doesn’t matter."
There are things Plus does well, like integrating with Android to store photos in the cloud, and offering an alternative for group video chats via Hangouts. It also gave Google a way to stratify social data on the web for feedback in the form of +1s.
Google+'s main contribution, though, was it allowed Google to unify all of its services under a single user identity. This was huge. Remember: Prior to Plus, your Gmail, Google Maps account, and most of all YouTube (which now requires a Plus login if users want to leave comments, to the annoyance of many YouTubers) were mostly kept separate. Google+ provided an umbrella—that little login in the upper right-hand corner—to track Google users most anywhere they went across the web. As recently as February, the New York Times reported that the Plus push was "being done so forcefully that it has alienated some users and raised privacy and antitrust concerns," including the gaze of the FCC.
So where does all this leave what is, on the surface, a rudderless social network like Google+? Unlike Google Reader (which had a small but passionate audience) or Google Wave (which almost no one used), the Plus profile is now baked into Google on an infrastructure level. You need the Plus login for everything from Google's apps on Apple's iPhone to next-gen technology like Google Glass. Google's footprint isn't just across the web anymore. It's everywhere.
Whereas Facebook is going the Google route by unbundling and breaking up its services (Paper, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram) into multiple pieces, Google's problem was always the inverse: It was never able to tie everything all together. That's the core value of Plus, which is why, for the foreseeable future, Google+ will likely continue to exist as it exists now. (Which is to say: quietly.)
Maybe the "+" branding will be pulled back, as Forbes suggests. But perhaps Google+'s main purpose is to provide the underlying fabric powering all the other stuff Google does and does well, like search and mapping. "Our goal," Gundotra told Fast Company in 2012, "is to make the world intimate and much smaller."
Google+, at least as it currently exists, will most likely never be the next Facebook. That much is clear. But then again, maybe that was never the point.