Google’s Missed Opportunity with Messaging

Google's Flawed Messaging Strategy

It’s well documented in the tech community just how ridiculous Google’s attempt at messaging has been over the last decade. While Apple has perfected its messaging strategy with iMessage, both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are highly prominent messaging options for millions of users around the world. Within the United States, traditional text messaging (SMS) that’s tied phone carriers is by and large still the default option. And then, there is Google…

  • Google Talk, which eventually kind of/sort of became Hangouts
  • Hangouts, in addition to variations tied into the failed Google+ social network platform, and is now being morphed into an enterprise messaging client for businesses
  • Google Voice, which eventually was tied into Hangouts but is now in the process of separating itself so that it can be a standalone platform
  • Google Allo, a text messaging platform that is for all intent and purposes, a carbon copy of What’s App
  • Google Duo, a video messaging platform very similar to Apple’s Facetime
  • Android Messages (previously Google Messages), which services traditional text messaging (SMS) between Android phone users

Google has made multiple attempts to mark its footprint in messaging which has resulted in multiple failures. On top of that, except for Google Talk, all of the platforms listed above are still in existence! After doubling-down on its commitment to moving forward with Allo and Duo for consumer use over the last two years, it was revealed this week in an extensive story by the Verge that Google is halting those plans and is now putting all of their resources into Android Messages and the next generation of traditional text messaging.

While the Verge goes in-depth at explaining the past failures of Google’s messaging woes and how their going all in on Rich Communication Services (RCS) is monumentally different, I still can’t get past how Google really missed a huge opportunity with Hangouts. Hangouts at one point was Google’s attempt to build a messaging app that would give Android users a platform that rivaled iMessage. The common complaint against Hangouts, however, was that it was seemingly buggy and ridiculed with complex settings that made it more difficult for common users to master. While I would agree that some of Hangouts’ settings were awkward, I never understood what prevented Google from cleaning up the app so that it wasn’t as complicated. As for the core aspect of the Hangouts platform itself, it could not have been any simpler.

I was an early user of Hangouts because of its availability within the Gmail web interface. It was right there and it became an easy way for me to talk to other friends who also were on Gmail during the workday. It gave us an easy way to stay in touch while on our computers, eliminating the need to pick up our phones. I especially appreciated that because to this day, I still find typing on a touch screen device to be painful and prefer a full-size keyboard. When I bought my first Android phone in 2011, Hangouts was already installed on it and I could seamlessly continue conversations with my friends when away from the desktop.

When you think about the millions of people who use Gmail and who also have owned Android phones (the Hangouts app could also be downloaded onto iOS devices from Apple’s App Store), I found it hard to understand how my experience with Hangouts wasn’t the same for everyone else. Sometime in either 2015 or 2016, I had an interesting revelation when my then boss casually mentioned that he had no idea that Hangouts existed within the Gmail web interface. Like me, he used Gmail, he owned an Android phone and he had an interest in the tech industry, and he had no idea that Hangouts was right there! I wasn’t sure how that was possible, but as I had more conversations with other people afterwards, I found that his story was not unusual.

That is when I realized how Google had blown it. If Google had done a better job at marketing Hangouts over the years (perhaps, part of the problem was its ridiculously stupid name, then as a consumer product and even more so now as it becomes a business enterprise product), to the point that their millions of daily users had an awareness of its existence and what it was meant for. And like me, when many of those users would eventually be on Android phones or tablets, they could continue their conversations on those devices, making Hangouts a truly mobile messaging platform that can continue wherever you are from whatever device you’re on.

A few friends and I ventured onto Allo last year, and while it is a fantastic app, I knew that without implementing it into Gmail the way Hangouts had been, it would be an uphill climb for Google to get people to use it. From day one, I never understood their strategy of why, upon launching, Allo was available only to use on phones when at that point, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger had web desktop interfaces. When Google finally did make Allo available for desktop use, the only way to do so was by connecting it to your phone via a QR code (which is how WhatsApp also does it for their web desktop interface). Compared to Hangouts which just worked from the moment you singed in and didn’t require the use of a connected phone, I always thought the QR code was annoying. Not only did that mean you had to have your phone nearby your computer while using the web desktop interface, it also meant your phone’s battery was still being used while continuously syncing with the desktop interface. As annoying as the QR code was, it worked for WhatsApp because by the time they launched their web interface, they already had millions of daily users who had used their phone app. Allo didn’t.

Not lost on me is the irony that with how Google can make or break the online marketing efforts of businesses around the world based on their search engine’s algorithm, yet is seemingly unable to master their own own product development and marketing. It’s hard to argue when you consider their multiple attempts at messaging, their attempts at social networking (Google+, Buzz and to a lesser extent, Wave), their mishap implementation of product naming, their stagnant efforts at manufacturing phones (previously Nexus, now Pixel) and their continued fight to make Google Assistant a house-hold companion via Google Home as artificial intelligence continues to emerge. When think of AI, you could argue Google is already behind as everyone now thinks of Amazon’s Alexa and their various Echo devices.

I continue to wonder what might happen to Google when the day comes where, for whatever reason, their business model around search can no longer carry them (which sounds ridiculous in 2018, but like we have seen with so many legacy businesses over the years, technology changes and many businesses that were once unbreakable fail to keep up).

Will RCS and Android Messages become a winning strategy for Google? As the Verge story explains, there are multiple variables outside of Google’s control that can help make or break such efforts. As an Android phone user, I’m rooting for Google, but given their history, I would not be surprised if we’re talking about Google yet again moving in an entirely new direction with messaging (which may even involve an acquisition) over the next few years.

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