Editorial 1 year ago | | 14 Comments

Decyphering the Google chat / video calling mess

Google Hangout

One thing Google can never be accused of is being conservative when it comes to trying out new features and services. New online services or products continue to spew out of the Google headquarters in a bewildering torrent. Some of these services are destined to go on to greatness (Gmail and of course Android itself are two great examples) whereas others arrive to minimal penetration and are quietly put down in the back yard once it’s apparent that they’ve gone lame (everyone used Buzz, right?). In fact the list of dead Google products is so long that there’s a Pinterest board dedicated to them.

It could be argued that this “see what sticks” policy is what has made Google great. Products are rushed out in an almost beta stage and more effort put into them if they are later shown to be popular with users. Popular products are then thrown more resources, evolving faster and faster into mature products with feature lists that leave the competition far behind (again, Android is a perfect example).

However, the bad side of this effort is that this scatter-shot strategy leaves Google an inconsistent ecosystem. New products appear that are only slightly differentiated from previous ones, and the effort to consolidate them is often slow and tedious (the integration of photo-editing options Picasa and Picnik into Google+ is one such example, and I imagine the addition of Snapseed to the Google stables will only increase the mess). Another down-side is that user interfaces are inconsistent as popular products are rapidly iterated, leaving less critical products behind. This has undoubtedly continued to be a strong point for Android’s arch-rival the iPhone, which by not evolving as rapidly as Android has managed to maintain a more consistent look-and-feel throughout.

So let me please highlight an excellent example where Google has left a confusing mess which has taken too long to resolve. This example is the various messaging and video chatting options that Google has made available.

THE CULPRITS

I’m sure most people are aware of Google Talk and Google Hangouts, and it’s these two services that this problem revolves around. The venerable Google Talk is primarily a text-based chatting service. It’s integrated into many Google sites (I will focus only on the Gmail and Google+ sites) as well as having its own dedicated apps for Android and Windows.
Google Hangouts on the other hand is the new kid on the block and goes head to head against the likes of Skype, as well as trying to give Google+ a killer feature over Facebook. It offers multi-user video-calling and is available on the Google+ and Gmail websites as well as being integrated into the Google+ Android App.

It’s here that things get messy, because when you get into it there are in fact 5 distinct communication “protocols” hidden under these two headings. As well as the text-based messaging mentioned above, Google Talk also offers voice-only communications and Video-chat (and no, this video chat is not a Hangout). Finally, the Google+ Android app offers a separate text-based messaging service called Google Messenger which is different again. Not only are these services redundant, but the way they are used is inconsistent and confusing

Don’t think it’s confusing? Here’s a diagram to (not) help.

In the middle of the diagram are the 5 different protocols that I have identified, separated according to whether they are text-based or video/voice based. Above and below this are the Google websites, Android apps and Windows apps I’ll be dealing with. As you can see I’m covering the Gmail and Google+ websites, the Talk and Google+ Android apps and the Talk Windows app.
Arrows from the above sites/apps to the middle indicates that this site/app can initiate a communication (send a message or start a video or voice call) using this protocol and arrows from the middle to the lower line indicates that this site/app can receive (either the message or the call invitation) from this protocol. I’ve highlighted a few arrows to draw attention to inconsistencies (which I will explain) and also bolded some protocols for emphasis.

THE INCONSISTENCIES!

To my mind, the most glaring and confusing inconsistency is the treatment of video chat in Google Talk, in particular the Android App. Here’s the scenario: someone invites you to a Google Hangout, so instantly you get a message on Google Talk. This invitation appears in the Google Talk box on your Gmail page, your Google+ page, and in the Talk app on your phone and the Windows app. Great, so Google Hangout invitations are passed through Google Talk!
So if I’m using the Google Talk app on my phone, if I click the video chat button that will start a Hangout with that person right? Right? Wrong. That will start a different video chat which is not a hangout. The interface is different on Android and on your PC browser on your Gmail page, and a Google Talk Video chat has far fewer options than a Google Hangout, including being only limited to two people (a Hangout supports up to 8). Here’s the two on PC, which might help convince you they are not the same:


Notice that a Hangout has a whole pile of options to invite new people, text chat, start up apps, etc? By contrast, Google Talk Video has two options, Mute and Hangup. These are not the same thing.

If you want to start a Hangout from your phone, you need to go into the Google+ app, not the Talk app. So you can receive a Hangout invitation on your Google Talk app, but you can’t send one. Thanks for making it simple Google.

Great, so if I click the video chat button in the Windows Talk app, I’m guessing I’ll get this Talk Video chat? Guess again, there’s no video chat in the desktop app at all, meaning you won’t get invites if someone invites you to Talk Video chat, but you will if they invite you to a Hangout. Wait, WHAT?

Looking at Google Talk opened up on your Gmail or Google+ website, there’s an icon immediately above the chat of a camera inside a speech bubble. This will start a Hangout. If you click on the “More” button, there’ll also be an option to start a Video chat. Yes, you’re right to guess this second option gives us a Google Talk chat. Why are there two separate methods of starting two different video chats within about 2 inches of screen space from each other? Because GOOGLE, that’s why!


In case I lost you there, let me recap. No matter how you use Google Talk, you can receive invites to a Hangout, however you can only receive invites to Talk Video chats if you’re on the Gmail website, or the Android App. The invites don’t work if you’re on the Google+ website (it looks like it should, but I’ve tried numerous times, it doesn’t) or the Windows app. If you’re using Talk on the Gmail or Google+ websites, you can invite people to a Hangout OR a Talk Video chat. If you’re using the Android app, you can invite people to a Talk Video chat only, and finally if you’re using the Windows app, then you can’t invite people to any video chats.

WHY MESSENGER, WHY?

This brings me to Google Messenger. When Google launched Google+, they decided in their infinite wisdom that what the world needed was another text-messaging protocol. Because, you know, there’s clearly such a shortage of methods to send text messages to people. Although the Google Messenger Android app (not the Facebook Messenger Android app, just to add to the confusion) gets a separate shortcut in your app drawer, it is actually part of the Google+ app. Because, you know, two shortcuts to different parts of the same app is simple.

Google Messenger is actually not too bad, but doesn’t have the features to set it apart. It lets you see when people read your messages, similar to Facebook Messenger, and lets you send pictures. In the modern text-messaging world, these features are fairly standard. The biggest problem with it is that Messenger is exclusive to the Android app. What this means is that the text-messaging used by the Google+ app is completely separate to the text-messaging used by the Google+ website (Which uses Google Talk text messaging). Messages sent from the website arrive on the Talk app, and messages sent from the Google+ app don’t get to the website at all. This begs the question as to why do we have Messenger at all? If I want to message someone on Google+, I want it to get to them! I don’t want it to get to them, but only if they’ve installed the Google+ app on their Android. How does Google not understand that the superior features of Google Messenger are irrelevant next to the ubiquity of Google Talk?

“How does Google not understand than in messaging, ubiquity is more important than features? That a single messaging app that everyone uses is better than numerous small ones that less people use?”

How goes Google not understand that in messaging, ubiquity is more important than features? That a single messaging app that everyone uses is better than numerous small ones that less people use? SMS, as well all know, has about the features of a brick, yet remains easily the most used way of sending text.  To their credit, both Apple and Microsoft have cottoned onto that fact. Apple has done so through iMessage, a service that provides minimal features, but piggy backs on SMS for a free ride to universal adoption. Microsoft have realized that multiple messaging services is a bad idea, and are rolling everything into Skype, using it as both a text and video service. MSN Messenger is being shut down, and Skype is baked well and truly into the Windows Phone experience.

GOING FORWARD

Google creates some great products, but sometimes they need to know when to stop making new ones and just consolidate what they have. This is one of those times, and I think (thankfully) Google recognise this, if their recent integration of Hangouts into the Gmail website is any indication. Here’s what I think they have to do:

  • Google needs to consolidate this mess into a single text-based service, and a single video service.
  • Kill Google Messenger, and focus on improving Google Talk for text, even if that means a complete overhaul. We want picture messaging, the ability to send files, and improved reliability thanks (for instance, 3rd party apps only seem to get messages whilst they are on, meaning any messages received in the interim you simply won’t get unless you open up one of the official Google Talk offerings).
  • Kill the old Video and Voice services that were built for Google Talk and only have Google Hangouts. Hangouts already have the ability to work without video, so a dedicated voice-only service is redundant.
  • If you don’t want to update the Talk desktop app then officially remove it from your websites rather than give people the impression that the desktop app is a valid way of accessing all that Talk has to offer. If you provide a dedicated desktop app for something, people are right to think that this represents the definitive experience, not the hopelessly antiquated experience.
  • Make the text-based Talk and the Video-based Hangouts available using ANY method that can be used to access either. This means (among other things) that Hangouts have to be integrated into the Android Talk app.

And one last thing, whilst I’m at it. Roll the Android SMS and Talk apps together. This means that any text will be sent through Google Talk if possible, and SMS if not possible, in a method similar to Apple’s iMessage. Google Talk is installed on approximately 1 billion mobile phones around the world. This rivals the 1 billion people on Facebook, who could be using Facebook chat, and easily puts Google Talk into the pocket of more people than any other messaging service other than SMS. If the Google Talk app was rolled into the SMS app, Google Talk would overnight become the most ubiquitous messaging system in the world after SMS.

Let’s be honest Google, the ecosystem wars are on. Both Apple and Microsoft have some big guns in the communications theater with iMessage, Facetime and Skype. You, Google, have two big guns with Google Talk and Hangouts, but you also needlessly have multiple other small arms like Google Messenger. And Google, in the communications theater of the ecosystem war, it’ll be the company with the single biggest gun that wins, not the company with the most little guns.

Written by : Bob is a physicist turned physics teaching student, born and bred in Newcastle. He's been an Android addict for a while now and rarely stops tinkering with any of his devices. His dream is to tinker with his phone long enough to teach it to fetch him a beer.
  • cameron charles

    and this is exactly why hangouts aren’t a skype alternative or the killer feature to draw people to G+, it should be, but isnt, i looked into hangouts as a way to include multiple people into a video chat session for work purposes but like you point the inconsistencies make it rather hard to get people without the tech knowledge into the mix, one wrong click and they end up in browsing google wave somehow :P

    • http://www.androidaustralia.com.au/ Josh Berg

      And then you end up on the phone or on Skype screenshare to explain how to fix it. Oh wait, no point any more …

  • Wayne Stidolph

    Thanks, you actually helped my understand why I’m so confused and annoyed by Google-based communications … well, this and the constant hanging/crashing of the Google Talk Plugin to Chrome:)

    • Bob Burgess

      No worries, glad this helped!

  • Sean Siem

    And please, include file xfer like the google talk app – it’s insanely handy for collaboration.

    • Bob Burgess

      Yeah, I consider file transfer a necessity for any decent chat service.

      • Caleb N. Diffell

        But wouldn’t Google rather have you share & collaborate on a file in Drive, using Google Docs? THAT’S what they should integrate, before any old-school style of actually sending files back and forth.

        • Bob Burgess

          As long as there is the ability to upload, share, and access directly from the chat interface that would be fine with me. To me the important is that it’s there. Drive is more advanced true, but if people have to open up a new window just to send someone a file that’s going to annoy them.

  • Marc DePoe

    And don’t forget about Google Voice. So many great tools, so tangled. They really do need to consolidate somehow – one to rule them all. Good editorial.

    • Bob Burgess

      Yeha you’re right that Google Voice is a great tool, but of course it’s not available for us in Australia.
      But that of course raises an excellent question, why isn’t Google doing more to roll out one of their top communication services to the rest of the world? They seem perfectly happy to leave it as a USA only service.

  • MrRtd

    Time for Google to consolidate all their communication services.

  • Matthew Duncan

    There’s also the “Chat for Google” chrome extension that feels like a weird, often clunky mix of the Gmail chat feature, the desktop application, and Google Voice. (And don’t forget Voice as another poster pointed out.)

    It’s a mess. There’s a lot of “great” scattered about, they just need to consolidate it.

    • Bob Burgess

      Yeah, I actually use the “Chat for Google” chrome extension. And of course there is numerous other methods of accessing Google talk including third-party apps and web-sites. I needed to make a cut somewhere and I felt that the selection I made was sufficient to make my argument but by no means is it comprehensive.

  • Cameron

    Just tried text message for the first time with my new nexus 5. Ok, so it seems I use this Google Hangouts thing. Fine. Create a new hangout and try to SMS my wife’s iPhone (right beside me). Create a new hangout and select her name (beside which is listed her phone number) But it doesn’t seem to want to send a text message, it’s just sending messages out into the ether.

    Seems some contacts it prompts me with “Send a message” and others “Send an SMS message”. I have absolutely no idea what is going on.

    I just want to send a text message, and I want it to bloody well work.