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Google Hangouts and Failed Messaging Strategy

Graphic courtesy of TechRadar.com.

As a Gmail user since its beta days, and since having used an Android phone over the last decade plus, I’ve been patiently waiting years for Google to get a better grip on their marketing and development in hopes that they might eventually have a more polished line of products and services. With Google now on the verge of shutting down its “classic” version of Hangouts, the near decade old online instant messaging platform being replaced by Google Chat, I’ve been contemplating just how badly they have repeatedly whiffed over the years when it comes to messaging.

Originating with Google Talk, the predecessor to Hangouts, I’ve been instant messaging via the web/browser version of Gmail since the functionality first became available in late 2008 or early 2009. Once smart phones and tablets became prominent, the added accessibility of Hangouts via app on both Android and iOS allowed for anyone to seamlessly message contacts and continue conversations from whichever device was most practical at the moment.

With the millions of people around the world who used Gmail, regardless of which phone they carried in their pocket, Google was in an ideal position for Hangouts to become the go-to instant messaging platform for all. Hangouts should have become a must-use for anyone on Android while its added availability on iPhones and iPads created the infrastructure where Google could have branded Hangouts as the dynamic messaging app that was both accessible and workable for everyone – all the things neither iMessage or Facetime were. When Hangouts enabled the option to become the default app for sending and receiving traditional SMS text messages on Android phones, it finally seemed Google might have a product ready to rival iMessage.

It never happened. Instead, Google repeatedly got in its own way – blatant self-sabotage. As a result, Hangouts never gained the notoriety that it should have, instead allowing for other less capable messaging platforms, WhatsApp being one of them, to eventually conquer. Google’s most noteworthy low-lights include: marketing negligence that made it possible for people on Gmail or using Android phones to neither know that Hangouts existed or what its capabilities were; Google’s delay to mandate Hangouts come pre-installed on all Android devices (an issue compounded with Android’s overall problem with fragmentation); and the disabling of allowing Hangouts to become the default app for SMS texts on Android phones (Google instead pivoted strategies and steered users to Google Messages, a separate Android phone app for SMS).

Additionally, I must comment on Google’s lackluster attempt in 2016 to rival WhatsApp and Facetime. Google announced it was pausing development on Hangouts to instead focus on the development of two new apps, Allo for online instant messaging and Duo for online video calling. At best, Allo was a half baked product that for much of its duration worked only from a single device tied to a phone number, just the same as WhatsApp. While WhatsApp may have had some cool features that were missing from Hangouts, it didn’t come close to offering either the accessibility or convenience of Hangouts – and neither did Allo, which is why hardly anyone ever used it. (Allo has since shutdown after only a couple of years in use, while Duo continues to exist having achieved moderate success).

On top of that, Google’s messaging efforts became all the more convoluted after deciding it wanted to compete against Microsoft Office 365 via a line of new and existing products collectively branded as GSuite (since re-branded as Google Workspace). Among the new products were two separate Slack inspired messaging clients that branched onto the Hangouts branding: Hangout Chats for online instant messaging and Hangouts Meets for online video calling. I must also rhetorically ask which genius at Google had the brilliant idea to brand these new enterprise products with the “hangouts” moniker, a word that has zero connotation to the spirit of productive business!?

The mess involving Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet become more of a cluster in late 2018 when Google failed to timely respond to a leaked report that the company planned to eventually shut down Hangouts. This report, which gained a decent amount of mainstream headlines, created confusion for businesses using Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet for their internal messaging. Though the report applied only to the non-enterprise version of Hangouts, that important detail was lost to many office managers or IT professionals who had reason to fear key communication tools within their company may soon go away. Google’s eventual attempt to clarify the confusion was to identify the non-enterprise version as “classic Hangouts.”

Since all this has taken place, the enterprise products, Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet, have dropped the Hangouts branding and are now respectively named Chat and Meet, while a separate consumer/non-enterprise version of Chat replaces “classic Hangouts.”

Droning further, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the potentially awkward scenario over the branding of Chat. Separately, there is Google Messages, a SMS text messaging app for Android phones. The additional selling point for Messages is that it supports RCS, a next-gen upgrade to SMS which shows read statuses and typing indicators, among other things, to users who text on Android. These RCS features are implemented in Messages via a series of features collectively identified as “Chat,” which has absolutely no relation or tie-in with the separate messaging product by Google known as Chat. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

For further reading, I recommend this Verge story from summer 2021 which compiled a much more detailed timeline of Google’s botched messaging efforts.

Up until about a year ago, many of my closest contacts were still using classic Hangouts. Since then the combination of in-app prompts announcing that Hangouts will soon go away, repeat nudges to switch to Chat, specific features no longer working, and the abundance of other messaging options available created a perfect storm where just about everyone I know who used Hangouts a year ago at this time have since bailed.

After transitioning from Hangouts to Chat some time ago, I can say that the new product is just okay, but I can’t say that it is better than either Telegram or Facebook Messenger, which I have also used more in recent years. Now down to just one contact left on Hangouts, I think I am now finally ready to abort.

The story of Hangouts is reminiscent of so many other Google projects that eventually come up short. The years-long awkward transition from Google Play Music to YouTube Music, the continued disappointment with their Pixel phones each year, and their aimless product development are a few examples of how Google so often fumbles, which despite knowing better, never ceases to amaze me.

On the positive, I’ll soon at least have one less messaging app on my phone. And one less thing to be hung up over.

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