25 Mar 2017
Goodbye, Google Talk
It has been widely reported this week that Google has formally announced plans to kill off Google Talk, its original popular IM product which (for most of us) was supplanted by “Hangouts” a few years back.
I still think that Google Talk was the high-water mark for Google’s “over the top” (OTT) chat efforts; it was reliable, standards-based, interoperable with third-party clients and servers, feature-rich, and well integrated with other Google products such as Gmail. You could federate Google Talk with a standard XMPP server and communicate back and forth across domains, or use a third-party desktop client like Adium or Pidgin. Google Talk message logs appeared in Gmail almost like email messages, making them easy to backup (you could retrieve them with IMAP!) or search.
Looking back on those halcyon days, we hardly knew how good we had it.
Everything Google has done since then has made the basic user experience gradually more shitty.
Today, Hangouts works with Adium and Pidgin sometimes, depending on what Google has done to break things lately. XMPP federation with other servers is being disabled, for no good reason that I can tell, in the near future, finally making it the walled garden that Google apparently wants. Integration with other products is inconsistent: to use some Hangouts features, you need to use the primary web interface (hangouts.google.com), but other key features – message search being the biggest one – are missing entirely, and require you to go into Gmail. Gmail! Why the fuck do I need to go into my email client to search my messaging logs? Who knows. That’s just how Google makes you do it. And of course in Gmail, Hangouts logs are no longer stored as emails, they’re some bizarre format where logs are broken up arbitrarily into little chunks (sometimes one log chunk per message), and in some cases there’s no way to get from a message in Gmail’s search results back to a coherent view of the conversation that it occurred in.
In the meantime they added voice, which is sorta neat but nobody I know really uses, and video / screensharing, which is very cool but uses its own web interface and seems suspiciously like a bolt-on addition.
Basically, Hangouts is broken.
But rather than fix it, Google seems determined to screw it up some more, in order to turn it into an “enterprise” messaging system (read: doomed Slack competitor). On the chopping block in the near term is the integration of carrier SMS and MMS into the Hangouts mobile app. I guess because enterprise users don’t use text messages..? Only Google knows why, and they’re not saying anything coherent.
For us poor plebs, they created “Allo”, a WhatsApp clone combining all the downsides of OTT messaging and carrier SMS into one shit sandwich of a product. (Just the downsides of carrier SMS, like requiring a POTS phone number; it doesn’t actually do carrier SMS, of course. That’s a new, separate app.) The sole deal-sweetener was the inclusion of Google Assistant, which could have just as easily been added into Hangouts. But instead they made it an Allo exclusive, ensuring that nobody really got to use it. Bravo.
Here’s the worst part: Hangouts is broken, Google is not going to fix it, and the best alterative for Joe User right now is … drumroll, please … Facebook Messenger.
That’s right, Facebook Messenger. Official platform of your 14-year-old nephew, at least as of five years ago, before he moved on to Snapchat or something else cooler. That’s the competition that Google is basically surrendering to. It’s like losing a footrace to someone too stupid to walk and chew gum at the same time, but only because you decided it’d be fun to saw your own legs off.
However, it’s hard to avoid: Facebook’s Messenger is just the better product, or is likely to become the better one soon. Let us count the ways:
It has the userbase, because everyone with a Facebook account also has a Messenger account. However it doesn’t require FB membership to use Messenger: you can create a Messenger-only account by validating a phone number (much like WhatsApp or Signal or Allo). So it’s got all of them beat there, and network effects mean that the number of people already using the service is always the most important feature of a messaging service.
It allows end-to-end encryption but isn’t wed to it (as Signal is), meaning it can do things that are hard to do in a 100% E2E encrypted architecture, like letting you simultaneously use multiple devices in the course of a day and have all your messages arrive to all of them. All your logs can be searched from any device, too.
Speaking of logs, Facebook already has better facilities for searching your past conversations than Hangouts. (The only service that seems to be better is Slack, which is somewhat ironic given that Google apparently wants Hangouts to be its Slack competitor, and Google can’t beat Slack at the one thing that you’d expect Google to actually do well.) Finding a conversation based on a keyword and then being able to read it in context is already far easier from Messenger’s website than from Gmail’s, and of course you can’t search conversations from Hangouts’ main website at all.
On mobile, at least on Android, the Hangouts app is better for the moment, but I don’t expect that to stay the same once Google starts forklift-upgrading it to be “enterprisey-er”. And the Messenger app isn’t terrible (unlike the main Facebook app, which is an unstable battery- and data-hogging testament to bad ideas poorly implemented). The recent inclusion of Snapchat-like features nobody really asked for notwithstanding, Messenger does its job and has some occasional nice features, like very low-friction picture and short video messaging. At least on my device, it hasn’t crashed or ANRed in as long as I can remember.
Personally, I’ll probably continue to use Hangouts until the bitter end, because I’m lazy and resistant to change, but I suspect Messenger is where most of my friends are going to end up, and those who don’t want to do use a FB product will largely just end up getting carrier SMS/MMS messages again.
Congrats, Google. You could have owned messaging, but you screwed it up. You could probably still salvage the situation, but nothing I’ve seen from the company indicates that they care to, or are even capable of admitting the extent of their miscues.
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