Hangouts: When making a good Instant Messaging app is not enough

Google releases Hangouts, the Instant Messaging app which they think will unify all messaging apps they've made. But does it really live up to hopes? Let's find out.

Yesterday, during the I/O keynote, Google has released its heavily rumoured instant messaging client codenamed ‘Babel’ – called Hangouts.

Well, why would Google release yet-another-instant-messaging-client? This time, they have a unique approach to it. They want Hangouts to replace all the messaging apps they’ve made till now. It’s kind of surprising how it took Google this long to realize this.


Hangouts is released for Android, Chrome and iOS. On Chrome, it is available as an extension which sits in your system tray or menu bar, more like a native app. The mobile apps (Android and iOS) are very well designed and show a lot of detail in UI.

Hangouts on Chrome

The Android app for example, lets you swipe to dismiss the conversations (like you do in Gmail). There are lot of small transitions and animations hidden here and there. When you send a new message, an ellipsis starts animating (or dancing, if you prefer that way) and shows that it’s delivered.

Hangouts on Android

You can of course send images and there’s plenty of emoji. Group Video and Voice calling are probably the standing out features, as originally seen in Google+ Hangouts. You can also snooze notifications for a specified amount of time (there needs to be such a system wide toggle in Android).

But Good is not enough

So Hangouts works well on Chrome, iOS and Android. But it completely misses the most important feature – unifying all Google messaging apps. Sure, Hangouts replaces Talk and Google+ Messenger. But what about Google Voice (US-only) and more importantly, the (SMS) Messaging app.

Hangouts is obviously not available for less popular platforms like Windows Phone, Symbian, so it perfectly makes sense to integrate SMS into the app itself. So that you can SMS your friends who’re on those platforms.

Google Talk on iMessage

That’s not the only downside of Hangouts, though. Hangouts doesn’t use XMPP, which is the widely used open protocol for instant messaging. But why should you care? Well, the number of instant messaging apps dependent on XMPP is mind blowing. I use iMessage for Mac as my default IM client, and Google Talk and Facebook Chat work perfectly. Because, both of them rely on XMPP.

Though it looks like Google won’t be shutting down Talk, leaving it for people who really need XMPP. Still, Google not respecting open web standards? Never expected this.

Chat heads

The sad thing for Google, is that, its competitors are doing really well. Facebook’s new Messenger app can do SMS. Heck, it even does Chat Heads – a really cool way to chat on your Android or iPhone. WhatsApp looks much better now with the flat Holo UI on Android.

The tl;dr is that, though Google has put some real effort into Hangouts, it is indeed going to be just another messaging app.

UPDATE: Some of the Google Fellows have confirmed that Messaging and Voice integration is coming to Hangouts soon. But here’s the thing: The fact that Google can’t ship a Messaging app with all its promised features (SMS and Voice integration) is what disappoints me.

Also, Google+ app on Android has got updated today, and it still has traces of Google+ Messenger in it. That surely tells that there’s a lot of work left for Google.


Aditya Kane May 17, 2013

I agree with your views but Facebook’s Chatheads do not do SMS on iOS either. Actually it does not even show up outside the app.

I think somewhere down the line Google will bring the option of integrating SMS into Hangouts.

Vibin May 17, 2013

Yeah, Facebook Messenger on iOS can’t handle SMS and the chat heads don’t show outside the app – but all that is because of iOS restrictions. I’m sure even Google can’t integrate SMS into iOS app of Hangouts, but I was referring to the Android version.

Aditya Kane May 17, 2013

Actually I do not think iOS can restrict SMS management. They can restrict chat heads as it affects UI itself. AFAIK I am not sure Apple could restrict SMS management which anyways is data produced over telecom networks and not via Apple.

Ankit May 24, 2013

I wonder if Apple has an messaging API included in their SDK. Being a closed platform, I don’t think it has. Even if has an API, Apple will reject the app saying it copyrights iMessage’s patents (as it did with Google Now voice search thing saying it violates Siri).

Aditya Kane May 24, 2013

@Ankit: There is a difference between Google Now / SIRI and iMessage – Hangouts. I do not think that Apple can allow some apps to manage SMS while not allowing Google solely because Google is a competitor. That opens itself to anti-competitive charges. Also I do not think iOS will take SMS off the table for all developers as doing that is a very unpopular choice. What they will do will be more apparent during WWDC 13 next month.

Aditya Kane May 24, 2013

BTW I used Google voice search on my iPad – SIRI at the moment is no competition to it.

Ankit Puri May 24, 2013

Well, you have a point, bro. Let’s see what happens in WWDC 13. 10th of June isn’t that far.