Google is working on a new social app for small groups to edit photos together

While Google continues to add more features to its two social communication apps Allo and Duo, TechCrunch has learned that it has quietly been working on least one more social app. Google has been developing a new social app that lets small groups edit photos together and then organise them for future enjoyment: think Path meets Snapchat-style filters and edits meets Google’s imaging smarts.

Google confirmed the existence of the app after we asked about it, and told us that (for now) is an experiment, one of many it’s running.

But it sounds like Google may be downplaying this a bit.  According to our sources, one plan had been to launch the app during its I/O event in May — much as it did last year with Duo and Allo — although from what we understand right now there is no specific date set.

Could the announcement this week of Clips from Apple, a video editing app that will also use AI, image recognition and speech recognition, also have played a part in deciding timing?

We also don’t know what name Google is planning for it, but here is what we do know.

The approach the developers are taking is not to make “yet another messaging app” but more of a collaborative social photo app. Users can create groups for sharing pictures. And then group members would all be able to edit and tag the same pictures.

Alongside this, Google would apply some of its own computer vision expertise and technology — currently used across services like YouTube, Google’s image search, and Google Photos — to help users along: it will be able to identify objects in a photo to tag them and organise them and in the future search for them, as well as to help edit and apply filters to the pictures.

We think some of the photo features in the app sound a lot like Clips, the app that Apple is planning to release in April that will use  “They are building a competitor to Path,” is how one person we know described it, in reference to the social app founded by Dave Morin, the investor who also was an early employee at Facebook; and Shawn Fanning and Dustin Mireau, both formerly of Napster.

Path gained some early popularity for providing a way for small groups of friends to share pictures and chat with each other, one of the early counterbalances to the more open-ended, share-everything tendencies on services like Twitter and Facebook.

In a little twist of what might have been, Google even tried to buy it. But as is often the way with apps, Path eventually waned in popularity. It was eventually sold to Korean messaging giant Kakao in 2015 (it’s still around btw).

Google has had a very patchy history when it comes to social media, and it’s an area that the company still trying to get right. The current strategy seems to be one of running a bunch of slightly different apps and efforts simultaneously to see what works, and what does not (which could be one reason why this was worked on as a separate app rather than, say, as part of an update to Google Photos).

While Allo and Duo continue to get updates, Spaces — a group app for sharing and exploring links to things by tapping into other existing Google services, which seems closest to what it’s trying to build in the app that’s being tested now — closed down after less than a year.

Then there is G+, still going but not the social networking magnet that Google once envisioned it could be. Google Wave, Google Buzz and Orkut are among the various efforts that have come and gone after failing to get enough traction.

Why keep returning to social? Because Google faces competition from the likes of Facebook, Twitter and now Snapchat for consumers’ — and thus advertisers’ — attention. Many (not all but many) users today do not think of search engines first when looking for information, deciding how to spend their money, and finding things to entertain themselves. They go to these other apps, and that ultimately can cut into Google’s mainstay advertising business and revenues.

YouTube, with its focus on user-generated videos mixed with premium content like Vevo, remains Google’s most successful social play, although it’s known more for ushering in virally popular material rather than for helping to keep the conversation going around it (although Google does do some of that, too, in videos’ comments section).

The fact that Google is considering how it can leverage some of the tech that’s been built to help power image search on YouTube, its search portal and its Photos app, to see if that can be used to get a foothold in social is interesting. As is the timing: Apple will be releasing its own gentle step into social media apps — Clips, which lets you edit videos and then share them on various social networks — in April.