Google finally took the wraps of Babel yesterday with the relaunch of Hangouts, a cross-platform unified messaging service to take on the likes of iMessage, Facebook Chat and WhatsApp. Users no longer have to contend with separate Google Talk, G+ Messenger, G+ Hangouts and Google Voice apps. To say the release has been long anticipated would be something of an understatement.
So what’s it like? Quite nice as it happens, while at the same time hardly setting the world alight. It’s a modern chat app that’s very similar to its main competitors. The killer feature is probably the fact that it’s cross-platform: running on Android, iOS and the web. On the downside it doesn’t yet support SMS, a glaringly obvious omission in my opinion and one that will likely see the service get far less use than it otherwise would have.
The app is nicely animated with neat visual hints of when people are typing and how far along the conversation they are. I also like the over 800 new emoji that Google have hand drawn for the app (particularly the healthy selection of food!). Starting a new hangout and adding contacts is nice and easy, with frequent contacts given centre stage in the UI.
The app also features a sliding UI which lets you get back to your chat list at any time by swiping from the left edge. It would be nice if swiping from the right cycled through open conversations but hopefully that will come soon. There also the ability to instantly start a video Hangout with up to ten contacts. Alerts are also synced across devices. So if you check a message on your Nexus 4, the noticiation will disappear from your Galaxy Tab. Very neat!
But I can’t help feeling that it might be too late. Other services are already quite firmly entrenched; WhatsApp has over 200m active montly users and other services like WeChat and Line are also massively popular. Nice as Hangouts is, it’s utility is directly correlated to the number of users. In my case virtually all my friends already use WhatsApp, and I can’t see myself being able to persuade them to change that.
The main barrier is that everyone has to have a Google(+) account. The beauty of iMessage and WhatsApp (and even Facebook Messenger) is that they either just work with your phone number or use an account that pretty much everyone has and actually uses.
Still, it’s a nice effort and will likely get some use on a future Coolsmartphone podcast.