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The history of Google messaging apps (arstechnica.com)
144 points by TangerineDream on Aug 26, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 80 comments

What interesting when seeing it all laid out like this is just how close El Goog has been to getting right on more than one occasion, only for some shiny new thing to blunder on to the scene and fragment everything again.

It seems pretty clear that if they had settled on one brand ID for messaging and just iterated and refined on that for the past 15 years, they'd be light years ahead of where they are now and, I daresay, the dominant player. Everyone I know was using Google Talk after AIM, MSN messenger, and ICQ died (except we all called it GChat) because we already had GMail accounts. They could have built on that instead of throwing it all away. Now everybody's on iMessage, SMS, or WhatsApp.

Or, cast your mind back to the distant year of 2016. Hangouts was more than okay enough for most use cases (IIRC it even had SMS integration/fallback), and then Allo and Duo came along and Hangouts got canned. Allo was trash from the beginning (why did it exist at all?) and while Duo was (and continues to be!) great thanks to its adoption of QUIC, there was absolutely no reason for it to be a standalone app instead of a new feature in the Hangouts app.

> Allo was trash from the beginning (why did it exist at all?)

Allo, like Tez, which is now Google Pay, was targeting the Indian market considerably by way of using phone numbers for identity, instead of the Google Account infrastructure that already existed. The lure was that it was supposed to be easier to setup and already had a social graph. I believe Allo and Duo were supposed to be complementary and fight against WhatsApp dominance. Tez “won” only because they were giving out cash. Allo obviously never did that.

But that’s why it wasn’t integrated into the rest of the ecosystem: it was a Google product but not tied to your account to try to fight against WhatsApp, et al., which left it on its own island, which didn’t work very well.

I really liked Hangouts with SMS inside of Gmail. With Google Fi you also had calls in there. Everything in Gmail!

Of course it was too good to be true. Google taketh away.

I can understand poor design choices from a engineering heavy org - but why do the products get technically worse (less featureful, less integrated) over time?

I suspect there are too many cooks in the kitchen.

It's new upper managers throwing out their predecessor's work to mark their territory with a fresh start. Messaging app users are not the customer so normal business rules of engagement do not apply.

But I was a paying customer of Google Fi, and these features were advertised to me before I signed up.

Having a single inbox like this is the one true way. There are so many forces fighting for their own proprietary messaging systems that I fear we're still years away from this happening again. Though it's popular to malign email, I'm very thankful that it's a distributed, open, standardized system, with decades of stability that allows me to message anyone.

You could do the same with Google Voice. Send and recieve calls and texts all inside of Gmail. I have no idea why Google got rid of this functionality.

You know what's worst about this? That pretty much every single engineer in Google that I met was voicing the same opinions. I personally used the phrase "I truly believe that the new unsinkable strategy will lead to a titanic success" so many times...

Yes, when GTalk came out, I loved that I could chat with my friends and my mother right from my XMPP client without them having to install anything. They were online if they wanted when they had Gmail opened or if they used the GTalk app.

At some point that was true for Facebook chat too.

But then both companies decided that chat system interoperability was bad for their business (which I'm not sure is true).

Yes, that brief XMPP interop era was a Golden Age that wasn't appreciated enough when it happened and is mostly something to mourn today that we collectively let it slip through our grasps.

Issues with XMPP support were big reasons I stopped using Google's messaging apps altogether. (It didn't help that at the time I was using GSuite as primary XMPP, because I wanted my primary Jabber ID on a domain I controlled, and communicating with Gmail primary users I recall seemed through a weird internal federation boundary that had its own strange federation issues even before Google started shutting down outside federation.)

I feel like they keep falling for the centralisation/decentralisation pendulum trap, which goes like this:

1. Teams in the organisation create some good products that solve specific discrete requirements, such as an email client, a document editor, text chat, audio calls, video calls, video conferencing, etc. This usually goes along with marketing slogans like “x, reinvented” etc

2. Someone comes up with this great vision of a single unified interface in which all those discrete apps are integrated. The marketing here usually includes terms like “seamless”, “enterprise” etc.

3. Some other people notice that the discrete products have become so tightly integrated that they are missing out on users that do not want to sign up for the integrated enterprise experience, but who just want the discrete product feature. Usually competitors will have stepped into that void created in step 2 and it’s easy to convince management that they’re leaving money on the table for competitors. Just extracting some features into a stand-alone product is sold internally as a quick-win (it never is).

4. Go back to step 2

> It seems pretty clear that if they had settled on one brand ID for messaging and just iterated and refined on that for the past 15 years, they'd be light years ahead of where they are now and...

I don't get why people keep making this point. I would say that no, the opposite is true: what you say starts out true, but the shifts are what killed everything. There was one good effort built on the "Google social graph" (ie. GTalk) that provided great service. It really increased the usefulness of gmail. Everything else decreased it's usefulness.

Then direction from above came, with Hangouts and Google Plus, their facebook competitor ... and destroyed one market at a time. Some market they didn't judge important.

(probably not in the correct order)

* Business/startup market (XMPP bots/integrations, there were companies using even GTalk as a way-before-slack business chatroom)

* Voice/video market got dropped (first time round: the integration with the PBX network)

* Google Fi integration got dropped

* GSuite integration got dropped

* XMPP market (obviously the techies fell under this)

* Voice/video got dropped (second time round: direct voice/video chat in Hangouts), in order to get critical mass for Allo/Duo, to support "only phone number" accounts

* Everything BUT Gsuite integration got dropped, in order to get critical mass for "GChat"

* Voice/video got mostly reinstated when the path for Allo/Duo became clear

* Voice/video got killed AGAIN in favor of "Google Meet" meetings, I believe first by limiting number of participants, then just dropping every form of video

I mean, even now I feel like people are showing INCREDIBLE loyalty to Gmail/GChat and Google is attempting to pull the rug somewhat from under them, in order to support their now enterprise initiatives.

And yet the one feature every enterprise has been screaming for to make gmail usable for business, shared inboxes and maybe some form of basic CRM is still not there (are people still having business-wide google accounts they hang out the password for in next to the door just so 5 people can respond to info@company ?).

I feel like Gmail's trajectory has roughly been this: 0 -> EXCELLENT product (in maybe 1 year total) -> today (14 years of focus shifting, abandoning one userbase per year) ...

I think the solution is to focus on Gmail as an email product with perhaps chat integration, but nothing more. THAT was what was needed. GTalk/Hangouts was always the chat app for more serious people. Google kept trying again and again to make it the app for whatever Google's focus was in $year, never did a good job, but abandoned part of the userbase with every focus shift.

I've been a long-time user of Google Talk. No-nonsense, lightweight (installer was sub-2MB!) chat client that talked to just about anything else. And unlike open-source Jabber clients at the time it had a killer feature: centralized and searchable message archive when XMPP crowd was only starting to think about XEP-0313.

Fortunately XMPP has caught up in the past decade feature-wise (except cross-platform video calls I guess) and I managed to convince some friends to use Conversations but this could have played out differently had it not been for G+.

Agreed on both points. XMPP is nowadays so much different than decades ago. I've migrated my family to Conversations and they're super happy with it.

Google's constant messanger churn tires regular users that just want to communicate instead of taking part in Google's internal political/promotion experiments.

Google Talk was great, the only thing I miss from google.

Don't forget Google Reader. I know there is Newsblur now, but still.

Google kept stripping features and starving reader of development that by the end loving reader was full blown Stockholm Syndrome. I’m glad they killed it or I wouldn’t have discovered Newsblur

They should have just stuck with Hangouts. They had name recognition, the name itself was appropriate for the service and it worked with the existing services structure.

There was no reason to depreciate it and abandon it.

Yeah, this really irked me. I used Hangouts for everything...calls, texts, chats, even group calls/screen sharing. It all worked so well.

At this point, I'll not use another Google messenger. They've made it clear enough it either won't be updated (hangouts), or will be killed off in 2 years(allo).

Sounds like monetization was the problem there. They couldn’t tie its development cost to a clear revenue center.

> Gmail integration also brought with it chat logging, via a searchable, cloud-stored "chat" label in Gmail. Being able to dig through all your email and chats with a single search was great.

Thanks to this lots of people even started using it as a sort of proto-Google-Docs for long-distance collaboration, e.g. songwriting:

"Das Racist is the new Kool G Rap. Peep us at the Grammies: 'We’d like to thank G-chat'" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fz5YjQ-AT3k

Also a good hint right there at their future naming confusion https://observer.com/2012/02/google-says-gchat-is-not-a-word... :)

I have been using Google Chat as part of our Google Workspace subscription and it is just terrible. Channels are inconsistent if you add users that don't belong to your org, the possibility to edit or delete a message seems totally arbitrary, it is not even possible to reply to a specific message (making discussions a real mess), video calls are handled completely separately through Google Meet, and the list goes on. It looks like nothing has changed in over a year so I'm surprised to see that Google is still pushing it, yet not fixing the basic flaws that make it barely usable for anyone who previously used Slack or any modern messaging entreprise tool.

We finally switched to Discord last month, the lack of integration with the Google Suite is a pity but the experience with Google Chat for a small organization was just too painful and not understandable.

I'm wondering if you somehow pinned your org to an old version. I'm, as a googler, on pre-release and Chat is obviously changing a lot. I doubt I will ever like it, but "nothing has changed" is the polar opposite of what I'm seeing.

I did nothing of the sort (on purpose at least!) but apart from minor cosmetic changes, we are still stuck with the limitations I mentioned and to the best of my knowledge I did not see real improvements over the past year (but I might have forgotten some).

However, I've just tried again to be sure and I'm still unable to create a group chat with someone outside my org (that I've added to a channel), unable to reply to a specific message in a conversation, unable to edit some messages. As an admin I am also unable to perform any kind of moderation in a channel (arguably, that's not a showstopper, but it is weird not to have admin rights over my organization chat). Also, switching back and forth between two conversations still shows a very noticeable delay with a spinner which really hampers the experience.

Hopefully the changes you see in the pre-release will be deployed soon and fix some of those issues.

The integration with Meet is actually the only feature I do like.

It’s not Googles style, but I’d love for someone at Google to explain Chat and why they think the current UI is any good.

Can confirm. I've been woken in the night a fair few times from someone half way across the world writing @all in a channel discussion...

For the people who want Google to be split up, it seems that it already is! You can look at this list of apps as a list of single startups that launched and failed. They’re all unrelated to each other; At most they share a “Login with Google” button and Google as a VC.

Edit: Oh, let’s not forget Google also bought Meebo and buried it right away. Good times.

But many of those startups didn't fail! They were shut down despite having many users and may have been profitable as a startup. If hangouts was a startup, it would be more valuable than slack or discord. Instead it got shut down and replaced by a far inferior product.

Meebo was basically my sole always-pinned tab until the day Google bought and killed it. :|

I’d forgotten about Meebo and how well it worked. Going to the domain still has a farewell message saying it was acquired in 2012. Hilariously the link they tell you to go to is for Google Plus and results in a 404 error.

Seems like they figured it out several times.

They need to stop figuring it out, and just stick with something.

No, not really. It seems they stumbled on some good solutions and nice features by accident during their random walk process to IM application design, but they forgot about them just as soon. The first step in figuring it out is to get something compelling in an useable state, and then commit to it because people are not going to use something they’d drop in a year.

They did it with Google Talk but could not replicate it, which tends to show that they (collectively; I am sure some people at Google could predict what would happen) did not really know what they were doing.

The most worrying thing is Jibe (which is the backbone of RCS in some carriers), because unless Google has somehow good plans to transfer or maintain Jibe, it will kill RCS with it. It seems that Google "Chat" is trying to turn RCS into a Google-controlled ship, and I'm worried that will entrench rather than replace SMS because it will be more reliable looking at bigger timescales than Google's messaging mess is.

Edit: SMS isn't even (fully) defined in 5GNR standards, so if RCS broke it's worse than useless.

I used to work at WhatsApp, so I'm probably biased, but I just don't see how anybody is excited about RCS.

RCS is brought to you by the carriers that can't make SMS work reliably and made MMS work even worse. The only way it's gotten any traction is because Google decided to just declare itself as the backing server by force. But as you said, how long can we expect Google to run it?

And, what does it give us? Another messaging service that I have to see if someone is on before I message them? But with easier authentication, I guess. And, since it's carrier based and maybe? falls back to SMS, I assume I could get billed for messages (especially international messages). Yay, I guess?

Supposedly RCS has an E2E spec now, but given how long it has taken to roll out how minimally it has, I would expect the E2E rollout to take even longer. Again, I'm biased, but E2E is kind of a basic requirement of personal messaging at this point.

Right now most of my messaging is on SMS/MMS, so if RCS makes it less terrible, that would be exciting. Obviously if you have to check to see if somebody is on it that's a nonstarter but I assume it'll fall back to SMS/MMS, like iMessage does.

Would it be a bad thing if RCS didn't happen? It seems like a last-ditch effort for carriers to try and attempt to claw back some of the control they've lost. Now, I'm no fan of having dozens of messaging apps, but carriers being involved again - is that better? And also, is the RCS spec even sane? Can I use it on desktops and laptops? TCP/IP is one of the best things we still have.

It's better than SMS, as you can push larger pictures and things over it. And since in the US we're stuck with SMS...

It's nice to have a messaging option that isn't owned by a single company. Of course it will never succeed because Apple will never support it.

But is RCS even technically that ("not owned by a single company") with Google's weird run around to also own most of the backend services?

Standards are great, but fiefdom attempts pretending to be standards not so much. Nothing about RCS' architecture really sells that it is a better standard (or really much of a standard at all) compared to XMPP or Matrix (or IRC for that matter) especially when the vast part of the data plane is so complex there's only ever really been one vendor (Vibe/Google).

> Will Google ever figure this out?

God I hope not. At least WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption.

As has Signal. And Signal doesn't - as far as I know - leak all its metadata to Facebook or anyone.

but it could and did leak your images to random people for several months

not to mention the whole crypto debacle happening concurrently


I could have said Telegram who hasn't been proved to leak anything for years, but that isn't accepted here as there was a flaw in their crypto in an early version (remember, a year or so after WhatsApp was caught sending messages in cleartext over port 443!)


In short, several months ago they added cryptocurrency support (and a whole new cryptocoin of their own) to the messenger to pretty much everyone's complete confusion.

Yeah, but nobody I know uses Signal despite my best efforts. Everybody uses WhatsApp. It's not perfect but I am extremely happy to see so many people using something this secure.

Someone rightly pointed out : Google is ADHD at industrial scale

I think the story of google messaging apps is actually making a very good argument why companies the size of google should not exist. Any regular company would have folded many times over with the amount of massive failures, instead for google they amount to barely a blib to their performance.

On another note, I think by now it is too late for google to ever make a messaging product to compete with the others. Mainly because amongst tech enthusiasts google has lost the "cool" reputation of not being evil, and they have been burned by too many cancelled products. These people are early adopters that often push others to a platform. Google would really need to come up with something much better than everything else to outweigh this. I am doubtful that is even possible, especially for google based on their history.

I think the big thing is that Google would have to acknowledge publicly what happened with all those failed chat applications and then explain carefully what changes they have made to prevent it from happening again, essentially doing a public postmortem on the corporate structure. If they actually did that, I could see even myself deciding to give them a shot, and I have hated on Google for at least fifteen years now.

Respectfully I think what the past has shown is that the people who can nail this aren't "in the building" so to speak @ Google. They have fantastic engineers but I'd argue a true unified communication tool is primarily a UI/UX challenge. I'm sure they have great UI/UX people there but this does not seem to be a key part of their culture.

This was a mistake on my part but it was my singular ambition in life to build a messaging company to sell it to them to make money off this problem. After moderate success (several million in revenue) I reached out to them and they blew me off. So at least in my experience they aren't overly excited about acquiring companies to get people in the building who specialize in this.

Can anyone from Google tell us why? I know people from Google will read this. Why do you do this?

Widely held opinion in HN: Promotions in Google are based on how many new products / projects launched by that person. So, every person in that spot wants to do afresh and nobody cares about maintaining existing ones: coz that is not in the metrics for promotions.

That is slightly wrong.

The launch-to-promo culture in engineering is real. But no engineer has any bearing on the "new product"-level decisions. What us mere mortals can do, is to try to convince the product management and UX designers to launch a feature in the vein of "clear the clutter" in Photos or "walk between nearby public transport stops to transfer" in Maps that we know how to implement.

But "replace Hangouts with a SMS client, personal chat, personal calls, enterprise chat, enterprise calls and some auxiliary apps" is definitely decided at VP or even SVP level. They don't get promoted on "code launched to production".

I'd be surprised if PMs didn't get promoted on "product launched", "new market entered", and such thing as well. If engineers get promoted on new service launched, new major feature launch, massive rewrite, etc. I'd bet PMs would similarly be promoted on the same, so big feature launch, big new product launch, big new market expansion, etc.

That makes it they're all spending their time pitching these ideas left and right to the execs until one bites.

So many communication apps, but no way to reach customer support

The heart of the problem in my opinion is that Google is an ad company first. Their primary concern is selling ads. If a given product is not helping them target or sell their ads, it gets sunset. Google has a long history of ruining or killing everything they touch... and I don't expect this to change. Too many smart people there, not enough idiots.

The thing is facebook is an ad company first as well, but doing much better with in this respect.

Maybe because Facebook's hiring process is slightly more sane than Google's, so they get more engineers with decent design/product sensibility and fewer engineers who just grinded a bunch of coding tests.

Why not double down on that and coast?

It seems like Google uses the Sand Hill Road model: fund a hundred projects they know will fail to find the one that has 1000x return. If the 99 failures at least feed a little data into the ad machine they're not a total loss and then they've got the one break-out product to attach to the money printer.

They saw Microsoft miss the Web, and they are afraid of missing the Next Big Thing, so they invest in everything for however long the money fountain from ads might last.

There's a screenshot of the Google Buzz "Bullhorn", as we used to call it, which was fun to reminisce about, I'd forgotten about it.

This was a small widget right on www.google.com, you clicked it and could post a tweet (let's call a spade a spade) right from the homepage. I always thought that was a pretty gutsy move.


One of my favorite ideas that was kicked around by Brett Lider during these days was the ability to double like something, and perhaps even let people give as many likes as they wanted! It sounds silly, but if you have a product where you might be able to sneak in a "double like" button I say do it!

>One of my favorite ideas that was kicked around by Brett Lider during these days was the ability to double like something, and perhaps even let people give as many likes as they wanted!

Makes me think of the claps on Medium articles

> Currently, you would probably rank Google's offerings behind every other big-tech competitor.

Um, no, I don't. They are in fact in the lead in most areas, particularly video calls which in my experience are the best in terms of stability and quality. Discord being a close second-video and audio quality is at the same level but the file-sharing experience is incredibly miserable(even worse than the google drive integration). I think google's biggest problem is the "they are spying on me" rhetoric. All while the biggest player in the game-zoom has been proven to be a lot more guilty in that regard.

> I think google's biggest problem is the "they are spying on me" rhetoric.

For me personally, the hesitation has nothing to do with such rhetoric. I simply don't want to invest into another Google's chat experience, only for it to be eventually killed off again.

I gave it my honest try with Hangouts, the experience started getting better and better, my friends slowly started switching to and settling on Hangouts. And then it was suddenly killed off in favor of Allo+Duo (only for Allo to be killed off shortly after). After my personal experience with Hangouts and watching the Allo situation closely, the only thing that will make me come back is Google stopping the trend of randomly killing off anything that isn't Gmail, search, and Youtube.

Yeah I'm done. I was still on Hangouts with one family member, but not moving to Chat or any future Google app. I'm mostly on Signal now.

> particularly video calls which in my experience are the best in terms of stability and quality.

I guess you use Chrome? Or have Google fixed it?

I jump between chromium and brave, works great on both.

Exactly, for now it works on Chrome and Chrome based browsers.

But a web product isn't good quality when it deliberately doesn't work well on Firefox.

(Yep, I refuse to believe that Google "forgot" to test on Firefox and they aren't so incompetent that they can't make it work if they want :-/)

Meh. I use Meet, Duo, and Android Messages with RCS regularly and they all work great. The RCS client even enables end-to-end encryption between two parties these days.

2 words: org structure

I was going to quibble that org is an abbreviation but https://www.wordgamedictionary.com/dictionary/word/org/

I was one of the few people outside google who was actually excited about Google Wave. We used it as an internal communicatoin tool within the company with great suceess. Looking at popularity of Slack, MS Teams, Zulip, etc., one could not think that Google Wave came out too early.

Or Wave came out slightly too late. As the last Google "product" designed with open standards in mind (if not great at it in practice) the writing was already on the Google+ wall that Google was done with open standards in server applications, especially those still relying on XMPP and XMPP federation (as Wave was). (I still believe this also killed Google Reader; RSS/Atom and OPML were too open to survive the walled gardening.)

Wave probably would have had much more time to figure out its place in the world if it arrived closer to the original GTalk/GReader launches than closer to their shutdowns.

It was a common workflow for us to chat on Hangouts and refer to emails at the same time over the phone. This workflow is now terrible with the merger of chats into gmail, because it's the same app. The app switcher made this very easy to do, and you could even multitask.

On Android at least there is also a separate Chat app you can install: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.and...

Google should buy Discord. Now. I hope they don't though.

If they let it run by itself like they did YT, might be a good idea.

If they try to somehow meddle with it, they'll destroy it.

If there ever was proof that Google isn't managed in any way shape or form, the messaging debacle is it.

injury to insult: GChat (whatever it was just previously called) was disabled for me, directing me to use it directly in Gmail.

The problem is, on the tablets I have for my kids (Galaxy Tab A) the GMail app doesn't include the Chat feature! So google has effectively killed my ability to chat with my kids. (Yes I checked settings, nothing to enable there)

I need to move to something else. still not sure what yet.

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