(2021-08-28) A Decade And A Half Of Instability The History Of Google Messaging Apps

A decade and a half of instability: The history of Google instant messaging apps. Google Talk, Google's first-ever instant messaging platform, launched on August 24, 2005. This company has been in the messaging business for 16 years, meaning Google has been making messaging clients for longer than some of its rivals have existed. But thanks to a decade and a half of nearly constant strategy changes, competing product launches, and internal sabotage, you can't say Google has a dominant or even stable instant messaging platform today.

Google Talk (2005)—Google's first chat service, built on open protocols

While Google Talk launched as a basic product, once it was out the door, a series of rapid-fire updates followed.

The Gmail integration at around the six-month mark was a big deal for Google Talk. Chat contacts got a spot in the Gmail sidebar, and chat messages would appear as pop-up windows alongside your email

In 2008, Google Talk arrived on the iPhone via—who remembers this?—a mobile web app!

2008 also would mark Google's first foray into video chat

Google Talk's voice and video chat required a browser plugin. It ran on technology from a company called "Global IP Solution (GIPS)," which sold VoIP engines to companies like Google, AOL, Yahoo, Oracle, and WebEx. In 2010, Google decided it relied enough on the company and bought GIPS for $68 million. A year later, Google open-sourced GIPS's technology and IP, giving birth to the WebRTC project. Today, WebRTC is the dominant VoIP technology and a W3C standard, allowing most web browsers to make a voice or video call with zero plugins.

By 2008, a little operating system called "Android" came out of the Googleplex.

Android didn't just support Google Talk, though; it was actually a core feature of the operating system. Android's entire cloud messaging system runs on XMPP, and, in the beginning at least, it was the same always-on Google connection as your Google Talk account. In fact, for a long time, Android's background process for all push notifications and syncing was called "GTalkService."

GTalkService ran communication for Android's entire push notification system, meaning that even things like a new Gmail notification came blasting down an always-on chat session between you and Google

GTalkService wasn't only used for notifications on Android—the cloud synchronization of Google account data also ran through the GTalkService, keeping things like your contacts and calendar events up to date. GTalkService was even used to install apps on Android.

GTalkService even gives Google a nuclear option for malware. The company could even remotely uninstall malicious apps from your phone, without your permission!

After maybe 2009, not much happened with Google Talk.

the beginning of the end for Google Talk was in 2013 with the release of the Google Hangouts chat service we know today

Google Docs actually had a bit of a service interruption when Google Talk finally shut down in 2017, too. While it was never cross-compatible with Google Talk, it turns out those pop-up chat boxes were actually based on Google Talk originally

Google Voice (2009)—SMS and Phone calls get a dose of the Internet

SMSes to your Google Voice number worked just like a texting app.

Since Google Voice was SMS, there were basically no features. Even getting MMS support was a long-running battle

When Google submitted an official Google Voice app to Apple's app store, Apple rejected Google's app and removed a few third-party Google Voice apps it had previously approved

It wasn't until November 2010 that Apple finally finished its meticulous study session and let Google Voice into the app store.

The service has been hanging around for 11 years now and has spent most of its life in the "neglect" stage of a Google messaging service

We've already talked about how Google Talk and the Android push notifications were built around XMPP, but would you believe Google Voice at one point also used XMPP?

Google Wave (2009)—An email killer from the future

I personally believe that Google Wave does not belong on a list of messaging apps

While Google Wave was the first implementation of Wave, Google did not try to make itself the center of Wave or to build a walled garden. Wave was open source, and like Google Talk, Google imagined Wave as a federated platform where users on different clients and service providers could still talk to each other. The Wave Federation Protocol happened over—wait for it—XMPP, with the extra Wave bits implemented as an open extension to the XMPP core.

Google announced the death of Wave on August 4, 2010, just 15 months after the service was announced.

As an open source project, Wave was supposed to live on at the Apache Software Foundation, but the project never produced an official release, and it was retired in 2018.

Spotting the newest messages, which could be anywhere in a long Wave, was difficult. Like a wiki, ownership of an individual message on Wave was not really a thing.

Being live means the inbox just constantly jumps around as new messages load in, making it difficult to even read a thread subject before it disappears

When Wave was still active, there was a ton of talk about federation, bots, and APIs. Users constantly hoped that someone, Google or a third party, would make Wave interoperable with any other service, like Google Talk or email.

nobody used Wave because nobody used Wave. From here on out, the network effect would forever be a huge problem for Google messaging services. Some future projects took note of this and tried to juice the initial network—in some successful and, uh, extremely unsuccessful ways.

Google Buzz (2010)—The non-consensual social network

it also started automatically following and sharing stuff with your frequent email contacts without really asking users if that was OK. What followed was a whirlwind of controversy, complaints, and lawsuits, and it's kind of astounding how most of the Google Buzz saga took place over just four days.

Every single design decision made for Google Buzz can be framed as "fixing the network effect."

Google Buzz's automatic setup exposed a ton of data about people without really properly informing them or getting their consent.

The rest of the world had turned against Buzz by day two, and the consumer revolt was incredible

Slide.com’s Disco (2011)—An independent app escapes the Googleplex

Max Levchin... Google announced it purchased the company on August 6, 2010, for $182 million, and then Google announced it was killing the company August 26, 2011. During those 387 days of operating under Google, Slide did the obvious thing and made a messaging app. It was called "Disco."

The GooglePlus Era (2011)—Google's social panic

Google+ was a hyper-aggressive, all-consuming social backbone that would run through most major Google services. If users wouldn't voluntarily use a Google social service, Google would make all of its services into a social service.

Google+'s greatest sin was the murder of Google Reader, a beloved RSS reader that some people still mourn to this day. Shortly after the service's death in 2013, Reader's ex-product manager revealed the team was borged into the Google+ collective sometime in 2010, which led to Reader's death.

Google+ Hangouts video chat—The first Hangouts

Google+ Hangouts was a big hit. Lifehacker called it, "The best free group video chat we’ve seen."

Google+ Huddle/Messenger—I guess we should have some kind of DM function

"mobile-first" got turned into "mobile-only."

A competitor emerges—iMessage has entered the chat

And now, a brief history of Apple Messaging services: iMessage. End of article.

We'll later see Google acquiesce to the wishes of carriers and put SMS on a pedestal, but Apple was the polar opposite. Cupertino couldn't care less about the feelings of AT&T et al. Carriers were apparently blindsided by the announcement of iMessage and Apple's commandeering of SMS

One more competitor—WhatsApp is now worth $22 billion

the company really did end up selling—to Facebook—for a deal that ended up being valued at $22 billion. There was apparently a bidding war going on, and, according to a report from Fortune, Google tapped out at $10 billion

WhatsApp was a company that was only five years old at the time and had only 50 employees, yet it ran rings around Google's messaging efforts

Pre-Facebook acquisition, WhatsApp also answered the question of, "How do you make money with a messaging service?" WhatsApp made money through the innovative scheme of charging money—it cost $1 to sign up and $1 a year going forward.

Google Docs Editor Chat (2013)—Just like Gmail chat, but not integrated with anything

This 2013 version of the Google Docs editor chat looked and worked just like Google Talk in Gmail. It actually was Google Talk under the hood, but somehow this wasn't integrated with Google Talk.

Google Hangouts (2013)—Google's greatest messaging service

Google pitched an idea that some messaging services still can't offer: a client that can do text, photos, and video chat, across all devices, on any OS. On day one, Hangouts was everywhere.

Google Hangouts replaced Google Talk, and the existing user base got an in-place upgrade, a move that should be a benchmark for how serious Google is about any given messaging app.

Hangouts also started the death of XMPP messaging for Google's biggest messaging service.

On day one, Hangouts was a bit of a disappointment. Those hoping for a unifying Google messaging service, like the rumors promised, didn't get one.

The key to overcoming MVP disappointment is to rapidly ship updates, and Hangouts did that.

At this point in 2015, Google Hangouts was at the height of its powers.

The death of Hangouts, unified Google messaging, and hope

2015. By the end of December, Google couldn't help itself and there was already talk of a new Google messaging service that was gearing up to launch, but this time with chatbots (this would eventually be Google Allo).

Google actually caved on an iMessage-style SMS takeover a year earlier, in 2014. The company pushed forward the bold direction of running all SMS messages through Hangouts in the 2013 release of Android 4.4 KitKat, which didn't include any other SMS app. Carriers complained soon after, and Google immediately sided with carriers over users, shipping what the company described as a "carrier-centric" SMS app, Google Messenger, in Android 5.0 Lollipop

Hangouts collapsed about as quickly as it was built.

By October 2016, Hangouts was no longer a default Android app, having lost its spot to Google Allo.

Google Spaces (2016)—A messaging app for Google I/O 2016 attendees

Google Allo (2016)—Google's dead-on-arrival WhatsApp clone

At launch, Allo only worked on phones

What Google didn't seem to understand at the time is that, like we covered in the earlier WhatsApp section, WhatsApp-style apps are not appealing to the whole world. Google tried to push its poor WhatsApp clone in the US, but even regular WhatsApp is not popular in the US. Apps that rely on SMS authentication don't work well in a multi-device world, and that's OK.

Allo's legacy: The Google Assistant

Google Duo (2016)—A video companion app for... WhatsApp?

Google Duo technically launched one month before Allo, but it's much easier to understand as a footnote to the Google Allo story.

Since, like Allo, it was targeted at India, Google put real effort into making Duo run on as little bandwidth as possible

Google pitched Duo and Allo as "companion apps," which was a ridiculous idea at the time. Messaging apps have built-in video functionality. Why would you split video and chat into two different apps? The most likely explanation was WhatsApp.

While Allo is dead, Duo lives on

Google (Hangouts) Meet (2017)—Not Zoom

This time, the releases were aimed at enterprise organizations.

The biggest legacy of Google Meet will probably be that it's not Zoom, a video conferencing app that absolutely exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic and quickly became a household name.

At the start of the pandemic, Zoom had a free tier that worked for most people. Also unlike Google, everyone in a Zoom meeting didn't need a Zoom account—only the meeting owner needed an account. Everyone else just needed to have the app installed and click a link.

YouTube Messages (2017)—Yes, this was really a thing

Google (Hangouts) Chat (2018)—Part 1: Cloning Slack is actually a good idea

Google Chat is not even close to Slack.com, but Slack is nearly twice the age of Google Chat. Can Google Chat catch up? Right now it does not seem like Google is giving the app the focus or resources it needs to compete

In the same way that Facebook snapped up WhatsApp for $22 billion in 2014, in December 2020, Slack was acquired by Salesforce.com for an incredible $27.7 billion. Once again this deal shows that Google's competitors value a single messaging app to be worth tens of billions of dollars, while Google seems to value messaging at an order of magnitude less than that.

Google Maps Messages (2018)—Business messaging, now with the instability of Google

Google & RCS (2019)—So we found this dusty old messaging standard in a closet...

RCS was cooked up by the GSM Association in 2008 as an upgrade to SMS.

Google calls its RCS rollout "Chat," which is extremely confusing given that there is already a "Google Chat" product that we covered earlier. The Google Chat and Google RCS Chat are not in any way related or compatible. Google's client of choice for its RCS solution is Google Messages, aka Android's stock SMS app.

After the failure of CCMI, the three US carriers (RIP Sprint) have actually given in to Google's RCS ambitions. T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon are all shipping Google Messages by default on Android. But critically, Apple (imessage) is anti-RCS.

RCS has a ton of downsides compared to a real messaging service, but that's all supposed to be a worthy trade for one benefit: RCS is supposed to replace SMS, so it's supposed to be universally available on all devices. Will that ever happen, though?

Apple does not want good messaging compatibility with Android.

RCS also has all the same problems as SMS and Google Allo when it comes to how you should architect a messaging service. RCS will use your carrier-owned phone number as your digital identity, instead of an Internet-based account system

Google Photos Messages (2019)—You get a messaging feature! And YOU! And you!

Google Stadia Messages (2020)—Two great tastes that taste great together

Google Pay Messages (2021)—We actually learned nothing from Google Allo

Google Assistant Messages (2021)—Text and voice chat, for families?

Google Phone Messaging (2021)—Isn't this going a little too far?

Google Chat, Part 2 (2021)—No wait, this is actually a consumer app now!

At the time of writing, we're firmly in the transition period between Google Chat and Google Hangouts. Unlike some of Google's more calamitous user transitions lately—like moving from old Google Pay to new Google Pay, or from Google Play Music to YouTube Music—it looks like the transition from Google Hangouts to Google Chat will not be a disaster.

Is anyone in charge at Google?

Today, the confusing, intimidating pile of Google Messaging services is bigger than it has ever been

I've written before about how Google's constant product shutdowns damage the brand, and messaging apps are one of the biggest contributors to the growing Google graveyard. Switching to a messaging app requires a big commitment, with the need to get friends and family to switch

When Google Talk launched, there was an assumption that Google would dominate messaging, because back then, Google was seen as a disrupter and a company that put effort behind the new markets it entered. Today, no one assumes Google will be successful in a new market.

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