The man who led Google's foray into social networking is leaving the company. "Now is the time for a new journey," wrote Vic Gundotra in a Google+ post announcing his departure after eight years.
So what does that mean for Google Plus? If you ask Google, absolutely nothing. But if you ask TechCrunch's Alexia Tsotsis and Matthew Panzarino, it means Google+ is walking dead.
"What we're hearing from multiple sources is that Google+ will no longer be considered a product, but a platform – essentially ending its competition with other social networks like Facebook and Twitter," reads their article.
"Google has apparently been reshuffling the teams that used to form the core of Google+, a group numbering between 1000 and 1200 employees ... As part of these staff changes, the Google Hangouts team will be moving to the Android team, and it's likely that the photos team will follow. Basically, talent will be shifting away from the Google+ kingdom and towards Android as a platform, we're hearing."
I ran these intriguing assertions by a Google spokesperson, who insisted they are "absolutely NOT true". Google gave me the same statement it gave TechCrunch: "Today's announcement has no impact on our Google+ strategy – we have an incredibly talented team that will continue to build great user experiences across Google+, Hangouts and Photos."
So is Google+ really walking dead? Not any more than it was before Gundotra left, I suspect. The answer depends on whether you think it was ever truly alive.
When the service launched in 2011, there were hopes it might displace Facebook as the social network of choice. It ended up more like a social network of last resort, populated by an assortment of Google employees, Facebook dissenters, maths- and science-lovers, and hobbyists looking for a place to talk shop without all the cats and baby pictures. For what it's worth, my former colleague Farhad Manjoo also raves about its usefulness as a place to store your photos.
Regardless, as The New York Times pointed out recently, Google+ remains quite useful to Google as an identity service by which the company can better track users across services such as YouTube, Gmail, and Google Maps. My colleague David Auerbach rightly observes that this has lent Google some of the same qualities that so annoy people about Facebook, without all the same benefits. Still, that's unlikely to change just because Gundotra's gone, whatever other behind-the-scenes repercussions his departure might wreak.
If nothing else, Google seems likely to keep up the social networking aspects of the service as a way of deflecting claims that it's just about data-mining. That said, it probably doesn't need 1200 people working on the service, if it ever did.
Facebook may have won the social networking game, but the contest for our data rages on – and Google+ is still a linchpin of Google's strategy.
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