Technology / 

13 Dec 2018

Foot, Meet Bullet: Google, Hangouts, and the Android Platform

Confession time: several months ago, I switched from an Android phone to an iPhone. This is after years of using Android, going all the way back to the O.G. Nexus One, which was the first Android phone I considered ready for prime time. (Some readers will note that it was in no way the first Android handset, but the others were much rougher around the edges.) It was the first Android handset that felt like a step up from my Symbian-based handsets, which themselves were a step-up from Blackberries (no need for a BES, mostly). I never had any interest in the iPhone platform. Why would I want an iPhone, when Android did everything I wanted, and did it for less cost?

Two things conspired to make me take the leap: first, the support lifecycle of Android handsets is criminally short, and seems to be getting shorter. I don’t like replacing stuff. Not only is it wasteful in material terms, but it’s wasteful of my time and generally feels disruptive. “New phone day” is not something I enjoy. So when Apple is still supporting the iPhone 6S with the latest iOS releases more than three years after their release, but Google guarantees only three years at most (and seems to basically lose interest in anything other than bugfixes after 24 months), the advantage goes to Apple. And in a “mean time before suck” metric, the monthly cost of an iPhone, particularly bought used, isn’t that much higher.

Second, Google doesn’t seem to know what the hell they’re doing. I’m increasingly concerned that they’re not good stewards of the platform as a whole. And while they can claim that Android is a multi-vendor ecosystem, we all know that it’s Google’s show. They dictate the roadmap, they make the core apps that come on the vast majority of phones and provide core capabilities, and they control the dominant App Store. It’s their platform, in all but name.

This is all by way of warm-up to discussing Google’s latest bit of stupidity, which is their refusal to back down on their disastrous ‘pivot’ in messaging strategy. Frankly, saying that Google has a ‘messaging strategy’ is a bit laughable; rather, there’s a sort of Frankenstenian lurching from one cock-up to the next, and we are left to try and interpret for ourselves what, if any, underlying method there is to the madness. But we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume they’re doing things intentionally.

I’m not sure that Google realized the importance of Hangouts to the Android platform as a whole. Or they did, but they didn’t, and still don’t, care.

Hangouts was Android’s iMessage; it was the only thing the platform had that got close to the ubiquity of Apple’s messaging platform, and it actually was superior to Apple’s by virtue of being cross-platform. Everyone could use Hangouts: Android, iOS, browser, whatever. And at least in my peer group, for a few short years, it felt like everyone did. You didn’t need to worry about what messaging service du jour to use to contact someone, because everyone was on Hangouts. Want to do a multi-recipient message? Sure, Hangouts does that just fine. Send pictures and GIFs and everything else? Done. Towards the end of Hangouts’ reign, they even got voice and video worked out pretty well.

Why did they fuck this up? They had a great thing going.

Beats the shit out of me. I’m still trying to figure it out. Possibly because there’s no money in it, I suppose—the “pivot” towards being a Slack clone might put them into a market where they can charge for the service, while nobody was going to pay for Hangouts: despite its ubiquity, consumers were conditioned to expect messaging as a free feature of their phone, not something they were going to pay extra for. And so with no path to monetization, Google decided to take Hangouts out back and kill it.

When Google announced that Hangouts was going to disappear and we should all switch to Allo, or whatever the hell dumb idea they had that week, there was an exodus. Most of my friends fled to other platforms: some went to Facebook’s “Messenger”, which is honestly a pretty solid choice; others went to WhatsApp, which I’ve yet to see the appeal of; others just went back to bare-ass text messaging, partying like it’s 1998 only with slightly better keyboards (and maybe not even that, depending on your thoughts on BBM and Blackberry’s hardware QWERTY keys). And one or two weirdos went to fully-encrypted solutions like Signal, where I suppose they can talk to nobody with perfect security.

And then, of course, Google blinked. They seemed to realize they’d done something totally stupid, and clarified that Hangouts wasn’t really going away. But they stopped short of actually admitting they’d boned things up, and they didn’t take any serious steps to recover their lost users, like guaranteeing that Hangouts wasn’t, in fact, going away in future. In short, they seemed pretty much okay, as a company, with what had happened.

That’s where we are today, rumors and counter-rumors to the contrary: Google says that Hangouts isn’t going anywhere for now, but with no promises or real clarity on what the hell it’s going to become, and no migration path to anything that offers a similar featureset. RCS Messaging? Why the fuck would I want to use that? In fact, why would I want to use anything that requires carrier support or coordination? That’s practically the entire reason people switched to over-the-top messaging to begin with—it was to get away from carriers and their ability to do per-message billing and charge based on destinations, and other obnoxious-but-typical phone company behavior.

For years, Google has seemingly been waging a battle against the carriers, pushing them down the stack, where they would inevitably become nothing more than a pipe for IP datagrams. This is entirely in keeping with what most consumers want their cellco to be. Nobody wants Verizon or AT&T creeping into their user experience (eew); witness the popularity of both the iPhone, which Apple doesn’t allow branding of (with very minor exceptions, most in the past), and of Google’s “carrier-less” Nexus and Pixel phones. But now, we’re supposed to believe that the future of messaging is some hot mess of designed-by-committee, unencrypted, phone-number-linked garbage? C’mon. Try again.

All this leads to one conclusion: Google just isn’t a good steward of its own platform. Apple, for all its faults, either is just plain better at that role, or it doesn’t have the mixed incentives that Google does, which have caused it to sell out its own users.