In addition to the slew of new Hangout-related features announced today on the official Google blog, the Google+ team also announced the launch of the Google+ Hangouts API for developers. This API (application programming interface) will be available as a “Developer Preview” starting today – meaning it’s not a fully-cooked product, but one that’s available for testing purposes only.
The new Hangouts API will allow developers to build their own experiences inside Hangouts and build real-time applications that use Hangouts, similar to Google’s own built-in YouTube player. The YouTube player lets Google+ users in a Hangout watch videos together at the same time.
Google also announced screen-sharing, Google Docs editing and sketching as new built-in features for Google+ Hangouts today, thereby forcing developers to think beyond the obvious integrations to more creative uses of the Hangouts API when building their apps.
To get started with the API, developers will build a Web application, register it with Google and specify who on their team can load it into a Hangout. The app behaves like a normal Web app, says Google, but it can use the new APIs like synchronization. Developers can create a “shared state” among all instances of their app so that all of their users are instantly notified of changes made by anyone else. Also included are the first few multimedia APIs that enable apps to do things like mute the audio and video feeds of Hangout participants.
The increased focus on Google+ Hangouts comes at a time when interest in Google’s new social network is dwindling and Facebook has implemented several similar features to those found on Google+. It’s not surprising to find Google promoting Hangouts, then, given they’re one of the service’s main differentiating factors from Facebook. Although Facebook offers video chat with friends through its Skype integration, that support is limited to one-on-one conversation, not group chats.
With Hangouts, developers could potentially build free alternatives to paid apps for online meetings, podcasting, tutoring and education, gaming and more. It should be interesting to see what developers come up with. In the meantime, documentation, sign up forms and group-based feedback are available now, too.