The life and death of Hangouts: A Google tragedy


The transition from Hangouts to Google Chat is now happening in earnest, with many even reporting that their group conversations have moved between the two platforms. It’s just a matter of time until Hangouts itself is retired, so let’s take a moment to look back at Google’s most successful — and, perhaps, most ignored — messaging platform.

Just one more messaging service, promise

Hangouts debuted at Google I/O 2013. It started as a means of unifying Google’s then-fragmented messaging approach — ironically, the same justification for its demise now. This new messaging service had long been rumored, and it was even given a pretentious in-development name that reflected this unifying goal: Babel.

We may joke that Google’s repeated answer to its shortsighted and fragmented messaging approach is always to introduce yet another option, but Hangouts did truly bring together what was otherwise a series of disconnected services. Back then, Google had Google Talk, Messaging, Google+ Messenger, and a separate Hangouts feature which was built into Google+ — the company’s now-dead social networking service.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tku1vJeuzH4?feature=oembed

This first Hangouts was for video calls, and Google’s slightly different approach almost predicted the rise of upcoming services like Twitch, Clubhouse, and Zoom. With a Google+ Hangouts, you could open up a group video call that anyone in selected “circles” could drop into and out of at will. And, if you wanted, you could even blast a Hangouts on Air to the world at large — that’s the format our Android Police podcast took for years.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pmSWh2BQco?feature=oembed

Still, Google had four separate messaging services, and the company decided it was time to bring them all together under one roof. Leveraging its acquisition of a company called Meebo, it got to work, and on May 15th of 2013, Hangouts was unveiled to the world.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahy3uRzRG9w?feature=oembed

Babel on

The new Hangouts started life as a drop-in Google Talk replacement. Although SMS and Google Voice integration would come later, it didn’t start with either — failing that goal of unification right out of the gate. Still, it was Google’s best messaging service to date.

Hangouts was simple and intuitive. The default view spat you to a sort of contact list inbox for current conversations. A big, easily spotted plus icon started a new Hangout, you could add people or even whole circles to in-progress group chats. The focus was clearly on using Hangouts in a group setting, rather than as a one-on-one messaging app. But everything worked with what were considered beautiful animations at the time and easy video calling integration. You could even use it from your computer, courtesy of a Chrome extension and support built right into Gmail.

Still, Google had hyped the new service as replacing more than it did to start. At best, it was just a much-improved version of Google Talk, not the last, final unifying messaging service we were promised. In our early hands-on of the service, Ron Amadeo called it “a disappointment” and “another instant messaging client.”

Google didn’t rest in the face of that criticism, though. Just a few months later, the anticipated SMS support was officially announced and then almost immediately released. The next year, in 2014, Hangouts would offer to merge those SMS conversations together with your Hangouts communications. This was the closest Android ever got to an iMessage competitor, complete with SMS-based fallback and a unified conversation view.

At the same time, Google was bringing in Google Voice integration. (Some claimed this would be the end of Google Voice, though even now, seven years later in 2021, those predictions haven’t panned out.) But in the summer of 2014, Google Voice’s integration into Hangouts was finally complete, even though it would retain its separate app and service. A dedicated Hangouts Dialer app even made this last addition official. These changes rolled out together with a new, brighter green redesign, and Google finally made good on its promise to merge its four messaging services into one.

The Hangouts golden era — remembered without the bugs

2.1 2.3 2.5 Screenshot_2015-08-10-20-19-39

The slow evolution of the Hangouts Android app. 

From 2014 to 2016, Hangouts enjoyed its golden era. It wasn’t exactly ahead of the curve compared to things like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or iMessage, and it slowly built a reputation for bugs as it added features, but it still had the right mix to secure its place. For many of us, this was the peak of Android messaging, and Hangouts was the closest Google ever came to “getting it right.”

Google started decoupling parts of Hangouts from Google+, and we enjoyed a years-long steady trickle of new features, from Hangouts not-so-well-known animated Easter eggs, to Project Fi support, and even Google Now integration for voice commands. It didn’t get a drastic new redesign every year, but Hangouts accomplished what it needed to.

The Hangouts Chrome app picked up a snazzy new redesign in 2014, code-named Ultra Violet during its development. This new, more transparent UI made use of a Facebook-style “chat heads” layout, similar to the bubble notifications Google has come back to in Android 11. Just a year later, the Chrome app picked up what would be its last new look: A more Material Design version that was closer to the Android app’s layout.

Google was looking for new ways to monetize the service, like adding live chat for businesses. The sleeper hit reached the Android mainstream in 2015 as Hangouts passed a billion installs at the Play Store, and the app got cleaner and slicker in terms of design. It even picked up its own website, which still exists today. Ultimately, Google Talk was retired, having been long-since replaced by Hangouts, though some bits would live on in the background until 2017.

The Hangouts Chrome app (above left) and extension (above right) in the standard layout. The transparent UI (below) would bug out basically constantly.

This was the era when I really came to depend on Hangouts personally, and I suspect the same is true for many of our readers. Sure, it never “just worked,” and Hangouts had a reputation for being buggy in the extreme. From notification issues, to delayed messages, and even just generally janky and sluggish performance, Hangouts was almost a meme for Google’s often half-baked approach to things. But, if you could suffer through its various bugs, Hangouts was functional, it had most of the features we wanted, and the hope was always there that Google could fix it.

It wasn’t quite the iMessage for Android that some of us wanted, but in a lot of ways, it was surprisingly close.

It wasn’t quite the iMessage for Android that some of us wanted, but in a lot of ways, it was surprisingly close. If you were willing to use Google Voice, you got cross-platform SMS messaging integrated directly with Google’s IM client. But even if your phone number didn’t make that transition for the full experience, Hangouts was simple, easy to use (when it worked), it still supported SMS fallback, and it was nearly ubiquitous among the Android faithful.

But there was trouble in paradise, even at the moment of Hangouts’ greatest success. Rather than fix Hangouts’ bugs and anecdotal jank, Google couldn’t resist the siren song it always gives in to: What’s the harm in just one more messaging service?

Hello Allo, and goodbye Hangouts

Even with this new unified Hangouts under its belt, Google unveiled Allo at I/O 2016. From day one, Allo was at odds with Hangouts’ expressed goal of unification: Allo would be a separate, standalone service. Google initially claimed that it would continue to invest in Hangouts as a distinct product that Allo would live alongside of, but the company’s attitudes changed almost immediately. Mere weeks later, Google would admit that Hangouts was going to be a business product going forward.

Less than a month after Allo and Duo were revealed, Hangouts lost its much-loved (if often buggy) SMS conversation merging. Just later, Hangouts On Air became part of YouTube Live, and Hangouts itself became an “optional” part of the Google Apps package. Its era was over, but the long, drawn-out death would stretch on for years.

I won’t dive too deeply into the history of Allo (we did that once already) but it was a clear change in Google’s messaging approach, and a far-too-late response to WhatsApp’s success. If it was too flash-in-the-pan for you to remember, Allo was a simpler messaging service loaded with stickers and not much else that was tied somewhat anachronistically to your phone number. There was a web client, but it didn’t land until Allo had already been out for a while, and it imposed its own arbitrary limitations, like the fact that it couldn’t work without connecting to your phone — an issue Hangouts didn’t have.

For a moment, Allo was the #1 app on the Play Store, though it didn’t last long

In 2017, as Hangouts languished in Google’s forgotten pile of services, the company finally split Hangouts up, introducing new Hangouts Meet and Hangouts Chat services meant for business. One handled video conferencing, the other was a Slack-like service.

Finally, SMS support in Hangouts was outright killed. Google Voice began disentangling itself from the Hangouts amalgamation in 2018 as Hangouts Chat debuted, and by the end of the year, Hangouts was rumored to be on the chopping block. On life support, Hangouts went months without bug fixes and lost features when it did get updated.

Details regarding the transition took years to trickle out, and Google went against its own claims more than once. Remember that explicitly business-oriented Hangouts Chat service Google spun off? Turns out, that’s where the consumer Hangouts would be going. The company would spend the next two years transitioning and merging Hangouts bit by bit behind the scenes to its spun-off successor, as Allo was also finally killed when it failed to take off.

Over just five years, Google went from unifying all its messaging efforts behind a single name, to starting entirely new services and spinning off as many as it could from Hangouts’ slowly decaying corpse, all to ultimately return back where it started and bring multiple messaging platforms back under one umbrella with Hangouts Chat — which would shortly be renamed Google Chat. Google claims it has since reorganized all its messaging services under one group at the G Suite (now Google Workspace) team.

Let’s Chat — or not

For the last two years, Hangouts has been in a holding pattern as we’ve waited for the transition to Google Chat. And based on recent reports, it’s nearing completion. For months, we’ve seen reports of Hangouts conversations appearing in Google Chat, and more recently, Hangouts users claim to have seen group conversations make the trip as well. Google is even officially calling this early glimpse a “preview” now, and a Google Chat web interface has gone live for personal/non-Workspace Google accounts.

Google Chat in Dark Theme. 

Google has been explicit that the transition to Chat would happen officially sometime in the first half of 2021, with all our chat history, contacts, and conversations moving over. A mere few months remain by that timeline as we all prepare to make the trip, which could happen any day now.

Looking back across the last decade, it’s easy to remember all the things Hangouts did right while glossing over its failings. There’s no getting around the fact that, even at the best of times, Hangouts was often a buggy and frustrating experience — if not an outright dumpster fire. But it was far from a failure, and sometimes I reflect on what Hangouts could have been if Google had redirected all the effort that went into Allo to iron out its issues.

I still use Hangouts daily, and while I’m sure that puts me in the minority, I doubt that I’m alone. It’s nearly impossible to get people to move between messaging services once a group is entrenched, and for many of my friends and me, the transition to Hangouts last decade was permanent. While we’ll all be along for the forced march to Google Chat, I’m not sure every conversation will really survive that change.

what’s stopping Google from spinning off yet another service?

Many of the same people I use Hangouts to talk to are upset about how frequently Google abandons its services. It’s not a meme anymore, it’s an outright fact and a point of customer frustration. While this transition from Hangouts to Chat isn’t really the end, and functionality and history should be preserved, simply moving between apps may be too big a trip for many of the people I know to make in light of this concern.

After all, what’s stopping Google from spinning off yet another service? In three years, Chat could be broken up again to accommodate the mercurial whims of Google’s ever-changing project management. If the people I use Hangouts to talk to have to change which app they open to read my messages, there’s a very good chance, when forced, they will take the opportunity to pick up something else entirely, and I don’t blame them at all — I’ll probably do the same.

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