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Google opens its social network to all

Just three months after launching Google+, the search giant drops the requirement of receiving an invitation to use the service. It also adds new features to its video Hangouts.

Google+, the search giant's bid to boost its relevance in the socially networked world of the Web, is now open to the masses.

Google had required invitations to the service since its debut as a "project" in June. But this morning, Google opened the doors of Google+ to all. Google+ has also graduated to being a "beta" product.

"We're nowhere near done, but with the improvements we've made so far, we're ready to move from field trial to beta, and introduce our 100th feature: open sign-ups," Google Senior Vice President of Engineering Vic Gundotra wrote in a blog post. "This way, anyone can visit Google.com/+, join the project, and connect with the people they care about."

Lifting the sign-up restriction comes just two days before Facebook's F8 conference. There, Facebook, the service that caught Google flat-footed and led to the creation of Google+, is expected to introduce a number of new features, potentially including a new music service that would help turn Facebook into more of a media platform. Some reports suggest that Facebook might even unveil a major site redesign.

In addition to opening up Google+ to all, Google is rolling out a host of new features to Hangouts, the videoconferencing service in Google+. Since its debut, the Hangout feature was limited to Google+ users on a PC, even though the social network was available as an application for devices running its Android mobile operating system as well as Apple's iOS.

Google is now making Hangouts available to mobile devices running Android version 2.3 and later that have front-facing cameras. And it says it will add mobile Hangouts to iOS devices "soon."

Google is also turning Hangouts into a broadcast medium. From launch, Google limited the number of participants in a Hangout to 10. The company is now letting "a limited number of broadcasters," likely those with the biggest Google+ followings, set up Hangouts On Air. The new feature still limits the number of participants to 10. But anyone can tune into a broadcast. The company is kicking off the service tomorrow night with a Hangout On Air featuring Black Eyed Peas member Will.i.am.

And Google is giving users the ability to share their computer screens with others during Hangouts as well. Previously, users could watch a YouTube video together. Now they can share computer screens to show off vacation photos, plan trips, collaborate on documents, or even scribble together with a new Sketchpad feature. And, as is Google's way with beta products, the company says it's testing the various features, which it expects to change over time.

"The extras are still under construction, but we wanted to preview these features and get your feedback sooner versus later," Gundotra wrote.

The company has also created application programming interfaces to let third-party software developers create their own applications that take advantage of Hangouts.

Google has also added search to Google+, a feature that had been surprisingly absent from the search giant's service until now. Users can type queries into the Google+ search box and get results from people and posts from the service, as well as content from around the Web.

Google also seems to recognize that users want to tap into their social network on the go. In addition to participating in mobile Hangouts, Google+ users can now post to updates and comments, receive notifications, and respond to group messages using text messages, according to a separate blog post from Punit Soni, Google+ Mobile product manager. And iPhone users can show approval for a comment with Google's +1 feature, akin to a Facebook's like feature. Google says that using +1 from Android devices will be available soon.

Google is also renaming its Huddle mobile group messaging feature to Messenger. With the new name comes a new feature: photo sharing. Users can now snap a picture with their mobile phone and share it with their circle of friends instantaneously.

Updated at 10 a.m. PT with details and analysis at 10 a.m. PT.

Updated at 10:48 a.m. PT with more details and analysis.