Google’s Communication Breakdown

Let me tell you a brief story, in excerpts, of the evolution of Google’s communications apps, starting with a quote from Google employee Nikhyl Singhal in May 2013:

Hangouts is designed to be the future of Google Voice, and making/receiving phone calls is just the beginning. Future versions of Hangouts will integrate Google Voice more seamlessly.

Here’s Ron Amadeo, reporting for Ars Technica in October 2013:

The most long-awaited (and leaked) feature, SMS integration, will finally go live sometime today. Just like iMessage on iOS, Hangouts will seamlessly integrate both kinds of text communication into a single app and choose the appropriate service based on contact availability. Google Voice, Google’s portable phone number and SMS service, was not mentioned, so it sounds like those users will have to wait longer for support.

At this point, one app — Hangouts — supports SMS and proprietary messaging protocols, and allows for voice calls as well. Sounds great.

Fast forward to May 2015, with Kellen Barranger of Droid Life wondering why Google launched a new Messenger app:

After digging around in Google’s Project Fi support site last night, I think we now know why Google created their own Messenger app – Hangouts just isn’t ready for prime time yet when it comes to SMS, MMS, and group messaging. In fact, Google recommends Messenger over Hangouts.

The exact wording from Project Fi support is, “For now, we recommend using Messenger as the default SMS app. There are a few features, like group messaging, that aren’t supported in Hangouts yet.” So there you have it. Messenger lives because it’s actually pretty good at dealing with texting of all kinds, while Hangouts, after all these years, still isn’t.

Okay, so we’re back to two separate apps: Messenger should be used for SMS, while Hangouts should be used for Hangouts and Google Voice messages, and voice and video calls. This much was confirmed when, in January 2016, Google discontinued SMS support in Hangouts.

And now, today, Google has decided to update Google Voice for the first time in five years. Its visual language has been updated to match Google’s “Material” aesthetic, and they’ve improved conversation threading.

But here’s where it gets weird. Jan Jedrzejowicz on Google’s product blog:

Going forward, we’ll provide new updates and features to the Google Voice apps. If you currently use Hangouts for your Google Voice communication, there’s no need to change to the new apps, but you might want to try them out as we continue to bring new improvements.

Last year, Google introduced two new apps — Allo and Duo — to sit in the stable alongside their other messaging and communications efforts. Casey Newton, the Verge:

Three years ago, Google set out to fix its chaotic messaging strategy with a single app. This summer, getting the full Google messaging experience will mean downloading as many as four apps: Hangouts, Allo, Duo, and Google Messenger, for sending SMS messages on Android. Maybe inside Google that feels like the future. From the outside, it doesn’t look much like progress.

With the re-addition of Google Voice, that makes five apps that Android users are encouraged to have to cover their Google messaging bases. That’s almost comical.