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What Google’s unified messaging service (Babble?) needs to be the killer app we all want

Google Babble

Just in case you guys haven’t heard, a recent article over at geek.com revealed a rumoured unified messaging service from Google called Babble. This service is meant to roll all of the messaging, voice and video chat options of Google into a single service, combining Google Talk, Hangouts, Voice, G+ Messenger, etc. Of course since that times there’s been a couple of leaks of supposed screenshots of the upcoming Google Babble, however we know that both of those are fake, for the simple reason that both of them are using the icon that Shen Ye made for the original geek.com article. Still, it doesn’t stop us from fantasising about what an upcoming Babble will look like:

google babble leaks

 

For anyone who read my article of a while ago entitled Decyphering the Google chat / video calling mess you’ll know that this is a problem that is dear to my heart. If you haven’t read the article, I recommend you go give it a go, as it does give you some perspective about how messed up Google’s current messaging options are. Regardless, the point is that I, among many others, have been waiting for a rumour to surface like this for a long time.

Now that Google has the chance to start from scratch and build something great, the question arises what that great thing should have, what competition there is and what that competition has on offer. In short the competition is huge and varied, but we’ll get to that later. First up, lets have a look at what we at Android Australia feel Babble needs to be that killer communication app that we’ve wanted for so long. Incidentally I must thank the other Android Australia guys, in particular Norman Ma and Adrian Mar for their helpful discussion regarding this article.

Some major points:

  • Cross-platform support
  • Text, voice, video all together
  • Make finding friends easy
  • Group messages are fun!
  • Text messaging features
  • SMS rerouting
  • The competition

CROSS-PLATFORM SUPPORT

This is a big one, and is something that somehow Apple in particular simply fails to grasp. The most important thing for a messaging platform is ubiquity, because you want to message everyone, regardless of their choice of device. To see the importance of ubiquity, simply look at the popularity of SMS. Despite being ancient, expensive, and lacking any endearing features whatsoever, SMS continue to be sent in droves for no other reason than the fact that every single phone has it.

The reason these companies want a messaging service is to lock people into their ecosystem, and then hopefully bump you onto their other products as well.  Here’s the marketing strategy: give the customer a taste of goodness, make them need that goodness and find it difficult to move away from the goodness, then promise them more goodness if they buy your other stuff.

Here’s the marketing strategy: give the customer a taste of goodness, make them need that goodness and find it difficult to move away from the goodness, then promise them more goodness if they buy your other stuff.

Apple’s iTunes is the perfect example of this. iTunes provided a way to buy music that was easy to get into but hard to get out of.  iTunes was where your music was, and that’s how you bought it, and it became a hurdle to move away from iTunes. It then became very tempting to buy other Apple products, because even though you CAN move music from iTunes to an Android device (for example), the experience is slicker with an iPhone.

A great messaging service has that same ‘lock in’ ability. Once that becomes the way you contact your friends and family, it’s very hard to move away from it. It remains the single biggest reason I feel that I CAN’T delete my Facebook, because for so many of my friends that’s the best way to contact them.  It’s Apple’s success using this strategy with iTunes which makes me wonder why Facetime isn’t available as a standalone app on Android. It would give people a taste of what Facetime is, and promise a better experience when it’s baked into the operating system.

To achieve the ‘I need this’ factor then a messaging service has to be EVERYWHERE.

To achieve the ‘I need this’ factor then a messaging service has to be EVERYWHERE. It needs an app for all the major smartphone platforms, Android, iOS, and hopefully later Windows Phone and Blackberry. It also needs a great web app so it can be used on desktop computers. The messages must reliably sync between all devices, no matter how you use it. This is in contrast to Google Talk, where devices will often not get messages unless that’s the device you were using at the time.

I also say a great web app because I feel it’s more important than a standalone app. My browser is always open, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who is like that. It’s much easier for me to have one more tab open than it is for me to open a dedicated app. It’s one reason that I dislike Skype, although Skype has already promised an incoming web app so that will change soon. I also dislike the Skype Android app, that persistent notification icon makes me feel that Skype is chewing through my battery, which means I always log off, which means it’s pretty useless.

TEXT, VOICE, VIDEO ALL TOGETHER

I think this point is pretty self-explanatory. I want to see my text conversation with that person, and right there I want easy ways of starting a voice or video conversation with that person. You’d think that’d be easy, but it’s annoyingly rare. Skype does offer this, another tick to Skype, and Facebook has obviously shown they want to head this way with Voice calls starting to roll out. Viber, a cross-platform mobile option, also offers voice but not video. Google does offer all of these, but as I said in my article mentioned above, the integration is clunky.

Skype

Skype sets the benchmark for cross-platform compatibility, with the only thing it’s missing is a web-app (which is confirmed to be in the works). It also demonstrates easy to find and understand buttons to start a voice or video call, right from the text-messaging screen.

MAKE FINDING FRIENDS EASY

This is one thing that might be a little tricky, but Google have to nail it to for Babble to succeed in my opinion. The problem is that Babble will be covering (and therefore associated with) a huge range of separate services, each with their own sets of contacts, such as Gmail, Google+, phone contacts, etc. People will want to quickly and instantly find these friends, regardless of where the link is to this particular contact.

This is currently particularly a problem for those people who want to use Google Hangouts (and use Talk to set it up) but don’t want to sign up for a Gmail account. You’d think that it would automatically add people on your Google+ circles to your Google Talk list, but currently you’d be wrong. You have to manually enter their email again to add them to Google Talk. This is annoying and unnecessarily complicated. There should be a giant button that says “HEY! You just added Bob Burgess to your circles, surely you’d like to add this awesome guy to your chat list right?” upon which stage you click the big “Yes” button and we’re all good. Google is the master of manipulating data, surely finding and suggesting friends, pulling their data from a multitude of different locations, should be no problem for them, right?

GROUPS ARE FUN!

The service needs easy group text chat, and group video calls. Free group video calls, to my mind, is the killer feature of Google+ Hangouts and so we’d expect that to come to Babble. Google Talk however doesn’t have groups, so that needs a fix. Skype offers group video chat, but charges for it, so perhaps Microsoft will change their mind on this and make it free. Many options offer group text messages, like Facebook, Whastapp, Viber, but lack the video options.

TEXT MESSAGING FEATURES

We want GOOD text messaging, not the stunted offering that Google Talk is. We want sent/received/read confirmations, we want the option to tag our messages with our location. The ability to send pictures and files should be pretty standard these days, but sadly isn’t. Again reliability across multiple platforms is an absolute must! Also the option to export a chat history would be a nice feature, so we’ll take that too thanks. Most of this is currently available in Google+ Messenger, but since that’s one of the more obscure of Google’s messaging services, not many people ever see it.

Google+ Messenger has most of the text features we want, hidden in one of Google's most obscure messaging service.

Google+ Messenger has most of the text features we want, hidden in one of Google’s most obscure messaging service.

 

SMS REROUTING OPTION

The iMessage service on iPhones is lovely in principle. When you send an SMS iPhone to iPhone, it automatically reroutes that message through its own service, saving you the cost of an SMS. The problem with this service is that it’s buggy and unreliable. Google has the ability to build the SMS app for Android into Babble, such that Babble could pull a similar trick when messages are sent Android to Android. This would also have the advantage that this service would not work as well on other platforms, as it requires a deeper level of integration with the operating system. Remember what I said before when I said  ”then promise them more goodness if they buy your other stuff”? This is it right here people.

THE COMPETITION

As I said before, the competition is vast and varied. First up we have the big players: Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Blackberry. All three of these players have their finger in the messaging pie, but have very different offerings. All of them however are in it for the same reason I said before, they want to lock you into their services with a messaging service you don’t want to live without. For my mind Apple and to a lesser extent Blackberry have the weakest offerings. The reason for this is the lack of cross-platform support. Sorry Apple, but the prospect of losing Facetime is not going to stop anyone from not buying another iPhone for their next device, because they already can’t use Facetime for all their friends who don’t have an iSomething, and their Apple-toting friends probably have Skype installed anyway. Blackberry Messenger was once one of the tentpole reasons for sticking with Blackberry, but as people slowly got tired of an outdated system and started to move away from Blackberry anyway, Blackberry Messenger rapidly lost its appeal as people had to find alternatives.

Facebook has two great feature going for it, ubiquity and cross-platform support. 1 billion Facebook users means 1 billion people that can be reached using Facebook Messenger, and the message can be read on an iPhone, an Android, a Windows Phone, a PC, a Mac, you get the picture. Unfortunately for Facebook its service is unreliable, it lacks that critical video chat service you need to truly make yourself a one-stop-shop communication service, and its Android app is still terrible and slow, even after the move to native code. Facebook as started to roll out voice calls to some countries (currently I think it’s available in the USA, Canada and the UK)  so Facebook is clearly continuing to put effort into this service. Clearly Facebook feels, like I do, that it’s as a method of contacting friends that Facebook is most indispensable.

 The competition is vast and varied.

This leaves the strongest competitor, Skype. Skype is so ubiquitous in the video chat space that “to Skype someone” has become accepted terminology, even if you’re not using Skype. The ability to just turn your camera off gives you voice, and it also has text chat. It’s so simple my grandparents can use it, and it’s available on just about any device you could wish for. It has image sending and group chat as well, giving it almost all the features that we’ve asked for. It’s currently held back by charging for group video chat, and the lack of a webapp, but the latter is already known to be changing soon, and the former could be changed overnight. It also lacks a couple of the nicer text features, but hopefully Microsoft can change that.

Unfortunately the Android app just feels clunky, especially in contrast to its desktop app. To message a friend, it takes a press, swipe down the contact list and press on their name, then another press before I can finally start typing. Also how hard is it to put the online friends at the top and offline friends underneath? By contrast, Google Talk requires me to swipe down my contact list and press on their name (online friends at the top) and then I start typing. Considering how much Microsoft goes on about how Windows Phone 8 requires less actions to get things done, it seems odd they somehow found a place for two superfluous screen presses to simply message a friend.

 

Various messaging options for Android. From left to right: Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, and Viber.

Various messaging options for Android. From left to right: Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Viber.

The other competition are the standalones, and some of the major entries here are Whatsapp, Viber, and LINE. These are companies whose primary product is their messaging service, and frankly I think the days of these companies staying independent are numbered. In this crowded and competitive space there’s very little money to be made in messaging services, and they are competing against giants of the computer world that don’t care that it won’t make any money. Messaging isn’t about making money, it’s about making your ecosystem indispensable. Being a standalone messaging service is like being a cinema complex that doesn’t have a candy bar, and to make matters worse doesn’t charge for tickets. People come for the movie, but the money is made with $12 popcorn.

Being a standalone messaging service is like being a cinema complex that doesn’t have a candy bar, and to make matters worse doesn’t charge for tickets.

Babble will be just one free movie showing in the Cinema complex that is Android, but the money is made at the Play Store Candy Bar.

Finally, here’s a table summarising the features we want in Babble, and what of the competition also has it. Incidentally Google currently does offer almost every one of these features, but spread across so many disparate options you’d be forgiven for not noticing.

Skype

Facebook

Facetime/ iMessage

BB Messenger

Whatsapp

Viber

Cross- Mobile

Y

Y

N

N

Y

Y

Desktop / Webapp

Y

Y

N

N

N

N

Voice

Y

Incoming

Y

Y

N

Y

Video

Y

N

Y

Y

N

N

Group Text

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Group Video

Paid

N

N

N

N

N

Send / Receive/ Read confirmation

N

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Geotagging

N

Y

N

N

N

Y

Send Images

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

 

So that’s where we are. A world where we want the silver bullet of communication services, but so far nobody has quite managed it, with perhaps Skype being the closest offering available. Can Babble be the one to finally offer us everything we want in a single service?

Like I said, Google already offers us everything we want, they just haven’t put the pieces together yet. Given Google’s recent move however to bring all its services closer together, focus on less products, and its promise to stop competing with itself by offering multiple products in the same category (btw Google, you still offer at least 3 different ways to edit photos, just saying) there’s reason to think that the rumour of Babble is very true.

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

    Yet another super awesome piece Bob. Love every word of it and a great continuing piece from the last messaging one! :-)

  • Greg Montaño

    Fantastically thorough! Well said

  • tommyMETROP0LiS

    Well done. I agree with everything.

  • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/ron-amadeo/ Ron Amadeo

    That “chat bubble” icon is for a Chrome Extension called “Notifications Galore.” It’s an app for testing Chrome’s upcoming Notifications revamp, NOT the unified messaging icon. Stop spreading misinformation. http://i.imgur.com/m3V0ETW.png

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

      Bob says in the first paragraph that the icon is fake and states that he is only fantasising about what Babble could be.

      “Of course since that times there’s been a couple of leaks of supposed screenshots of the upcoming Google Babble, however we know that both of those are fake, for the simple reason that both of them are using the icon that Shen Ye made for the original geek.com article.”

    • Bob Burgess

      Thanks Ron for clearing that up. As I did say in my article, this was a work of fantasy and that the screenshots are definitely faked. Yes I needed a placeholder icon and yes I did take use the one that’s been adopted as the unofficial Babble icon, even though it is definitely not the actual one.

      So sincerely thanks for this comment to clear up that the icon used is NOT the actual Babble icon, if in fact the app is real and going to be called Babble.

      I’ll also mention that I have a lot of respect for your writing.

  • Piesmith

    If they’re going to Un-Babel, they might as well have real time machine translation of voice and text. Also, real time video subtitles would be nice.

  • whythefuckdoyouquoteyourself

    Really shitty article

    • Bob Burgess

      Thanks for your completely unhelpful and non-constructive criticism.

      As for why I quote myself (as in your username) many blogs and news sources use quotes from their own articles as a way of breaking up and at the same time summarising an article. See any lengthy article by The Verge or Engadget as examples.

      If you then say that you have a problem with my work being inspired by, and following queues from, two of the biggest tech blogs on the internet…. then I’m going assume you’re just trolling.

  • Muhammad Ali
    • Bob Burgess

      Thanks for that! I’ll have to slap my Blackberry-toting friend.

  • Serge

    Not sure why people miss the elephant in the room: Google+ Messenger. Google Talk will be spring-cleaned one day, Google Voice will never be an international service (I’m sure Google is not thrilled to comply with every country wiretapping and voice telecommunication laws; also in “caller pays” countries running Google Voice may cost a lot) and SMS/MMS can be seamlessly integrated into Google+ Messenger app. In several years there will be G+ Messenger and rumored Babble, right? What’s the purpose of two services? That’s not unification. The only downside of G+ Messenger is required creation of G+ profile, but that’s what Google actually want. They take every opportunity to push you to sign up for Google+.

    • Bob Burgess

      You’re right, Google+ Messenger has some great features and I wish I loved it.

      However to me the biggest draw-back of G+ Messenger is the fact that it’s restricted to mobile, it can’t be accessed from a PC. To me it’s important that I be able to start a conversation on a phone, and pick it up on a PC and vice-versa. It’s the major reason why I talk to my friends using Facebook chat and Google Talk and not other options.

      I intentionally focused on the competition and not what Google has on offer for two reasons:
      1. I recently wrote an article breaking down Google’s offerings, and what’s wrong with them. That article is linked in the first few paragraphs.
      2. We expect that all of Google’s offerings, including G+ Messenger, will be rolled into one. So rather than break them down I simply pointed out that Google already offers basically every feature I’ve asked for, only across numerous services.