RIP Google Hangouts, Google's last, best chance to compete with iMessage

RIP Google Hangouts, Google’s last, best chance to compete with iMessage

Today, November 1, 2022, Google Hangouts is scheduled to die. The phone app has been individually shutting people off the service since July, but the last remnants of Hangouts, the web app, will shut down today. Hangouts was — for a brief period — Google’s best, most ambitious and most popular messaging effort, but 5 billion downloads later, Google is moving on. Hangouts’ relative, Google Chat, should have imported all your messages and contacts automatically by now, but the new service is a faint shadow of the original plan for Hangouts.

The shutdown of Hangouts is the latest chapter in the mess that is Google’s messaging history. Google Talk launched 17 years ago, and Google still doesn’t have a competitive messaging platform. Part of the reason we’re on Google’s 10 millionth messaging app is that there’s no solid, stable home for messaging on Google. The 2022 message program is a good example. You’ve got the Google Workspace team making Google Chat — that’s Google’s business team making a Slack competitor — and then there’s Google Messages — a carrier-centric sort of competitor to Apple’s iMessage — which seemingly grew out of the Android team. Is the team that makes Android more or less important than the team that makes Gmail and the rest of the Google apps? Both have their understandable reasons for chasing notifications, but splitting Google’s user base across two incompatible products makes it difficult for either project to gain traction. Besides the two big projects, there’s still Google Voice and a bunch of side-messaging services in apps like Google Photos and Google Pay.

Once upon a time, Google tried to fix this. Messaging was meant to have a real home at Google, and that home was meant to be Google+. Back in 2011, Google’s then-CEO Larry Page decided that social was the future and created the company-wide Google+ project. The head of G+ was given the title of “Senior Vice President” which made him one of the eight-ish people who reported directly to Page, meaning that Google+ is one of Google’s mainstays. This division was supposed to take full ownership of messaging, and it launched its messaging project – Google+ Hangouts – two years later.

Hangouts, codenamed “Project Babel,” was tasked with — get this —unification Google’s messaging portfolio. Google had four messaging apps at the time, Google+ Messenger, Google Talk, Android’s SMS app, and Google Voice. Hangouts launched in 2013, and by the end of the year integrated SMS messaging. By 2014, the app was fully functional and included Hangouts Messages, SMS and Google Voice all in one app, all accessible from your phone or anywhere on the Internet. With the release of Android 4.4 in 2013, there where not a standalone Android SMS app. Hangouts was the only default option for SMS.

Google had built its iMessage clone, and it was an incredible service. All your communications were accessible from a single messaging app in an easy-to-use interface. Google also had significant advantages over iMessage, thanks to broad cross-platform compatibility. Hangouts was available on Android, iOS, the web and in Gmail. That meant the service worked on phones, watches, cars, tablets, browsers and even Google Glass at one point. Google would probably have a decent foothold in messaging today if it just kept updating and investing in Hangouts.

However, Hangouts’ home fell apart back in 2014. Amid complaints that Google+ was a “ghost town,” the knives came out for the service. Google+ SVP and the driving force behind the project, Vic Gundotra, left Google, and on the same day there were reports that Google+ resources would be drastically reduced and the forced Google-wide integration of G+ would end. Hangouts was stuck in a dying division, and while some projects like Google+ Photos managed to spin out into a stable landing spot, Hangouts didn’t, and in 2015 you’d regularly see complaints from customers that the project was underfunded.

The other “problem” with Hangouts is that it was a strike against mobile carriers. Combining SMS and a superior messaging service in one app was something the operators didn’t like. They wanted something focused on SMS and only SMS, so that users wouldn’t dare to be tempted not to use an operator product. Google caved and introduced the standalone Google Messages in the next Android version. With Google’s lack of organization and courage, Hangouts’ reign as Google’s best all-in-one messaging service lasted only about a year. Hangouts has continued to truck along as the derelict zombie product that was still better than the slew of new messaging services Google would release afterward, and today it’s finally being shut down.

#RIP #Google #Hangouts #Googles #chance #compete #iMessage

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