Today, November 1, 2022, Google Hangouts is scheduled to die. The phone app has been starting service users individually since July, but the last vestiges of Hangouts, the web app, will be shut down today. Hangouts was, for a brief time, Google’s best, most ambitious and popular messaging effort, but 5 billion downloads later, Google is moving on. Hangout’s closest relative, Google Chat, should now automatically import all your messages and contacts, but the new service is a faint shadow of Hangouts’ original plan.
The shutdown of Hangouts is the latest chapter in the mess that is Google’s messaging story. Google Talk was 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 Mail app is that there’s a solid, stable home for Mail inside Google. The 2022 messaging lineup is a prime example. You have the Google Workspace team making Google Chat – it’s the Google business team making a competitor to Slack – and then there’s Google Messages – kind of a carrier-centric competitor to Apple’s iMessage – which is apparently from the Android team. Is the team that makes Android bigger or smaller than the team that makes Gmail and the rest of Google apps? Both have their understandable reasons for seeking messaging, but splitting Google’s user base between two incompatible products makes it difficult for either project to achieve impact. Besides those two big projects, there’s also Google Voice and a bunch of siled messaging services in apps like Google Photos and Google Pay.
Once upon a time, Google tried to fix this problem. Messaging was supposed to have a real home at Google, and that home was supposed to be (dramatic thunderclap) Google+. In 2011, then Google CEO Larry Page decided that social was the future and launched the Google+ project across the company. The head of G+ was given the title of “Senior Vice President”, making him one of eight people who reported directly to Page, enshrining Google+ as one of Google’s main pillars. This division was supposed to take full ownership of messaging and launched its messaging project, Google+ Hangouts, two years later.
Hangouts, codenamed “Project Babel”, was tasked with – get this –unifying Google Mail Wallet. Google had four messaging apps back then, Google+ Messenger, Google Talk, Android’s SMS app, and Google Voice. Hangouts launched in 2013, and by the end of the year integrated SMS messages. In 2014, the app was fully operational and featured Hangouts messages, SMS and Google Voice in one app, all available from your phone or anywhere on the internet. With the release of Android 4.4 in 2013, it has been no standalone Android SMS app. Hangouts was the only default SMS option.
Google had built its iMessage clone, and it was an amazing service. All your communications were available from a single messaging app in an easy to use interface. Google also had tangible advantages over iMessage, thanks to broad cross-platform compatibility. Hangouts was on Android, iOS, the web, and in Gmail. That meant the service ran natively on phones, watches, cars, tablets, web browsers, and even Google Glass at one point. Google would likely have a solid foundation in messaging today if it continued to update and invest in Hangouts.
However, Hangout’s home was already falling apart in 2014. Amid complaints that Google+ was a “ghost town”, the knives came out for the service. Google+ Senior Vice President and Project Engine Vic Gundotra left Google, and on the same day reports surfaced that Google+ resources would be drastically reduced and the forced integration of Google+ across Google would end. Hangouts was stuck in a dying division, and while some projects like Google+ Photos managed to turn into a stable landing spot, Hangouts didn’t, and in 2015 you’d regularly see customer complaints that the project was underfunded.
The other “problem” with Hangouts is that it was a strike against mobile operators. Combining SMS and an over-the-top messaging service into one app was something carriers didn’t like. They wanted something SMS-focused and SMS-only, so users wouldn’t dare be tempted into not using a carrier product. Google relented and introduced standalone Google Messages in the next version of Android. With Google’s lack of organization and guts, Hangouts’ reign as Google’s best all-in-one messaging service only lasted about a year. Hangouts continued to roll as a discontinued zombie product that was even better than the plethora of new messaging services that Google would later release, and today it’s finally being phased out.
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