Is the burden of history holding back Google’s messaging apps?

Instant messaging apps, armed with video and audio chat options, have been the default communication tool for millions globally over the last few years, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. WhatsApp continues to be the undisputed leader, yet at different points of time, we have seen significant steps forward by rivals on personal and workspace platforms– Telegram, Signal, Zoom and Teams, to name a few. It doesn’t make for pretty reading for Google. In the instant messaging app popularity stakes globally, Google still doesn’t figure among the list of the most popular apps. Not for lack of trying (it had the first mover advantage too, many years ago), because they have a very wide range of communication apps on offer. Yet, it is perplexing why Google remains on the periphery. Messaging apps are all about scale and domination Facebook-owned WhatsApp leads the way with about 2 billion active users, followed by Facebook’s own Messenger (around 1.3 billion users), WeChat (around 1.25 billion), QQ (around 591 million), Telegram (around 550 million) and Snapchat (around 538 million), according to the latest numbers by research firm Statista. Top 6 apps, and nothing by tech giant Google, feature in the list. In India, there are more than 658 million active internet users according to the latest numbers by Kepios research (this number increased by 34 million between 2021 and 2022). Kepios and Statista’s data confirms the dominance of WhatsApp as the preferred platform for communication. In fact, Google Hangouts is the fifth most popular messaging app in India (28% users) – tied with Snapchat – behind Facebook Messenger, (59%), Zoom (47%) and Telegram (42%). It is important to have a sizeable messaging application and platform. Facebook understood that when they paid $22 billion to get WhatsApp into their kitty back in 2014. Alongside, they never ignored the Messenger app (earlier known as Facebook Messenger), which has gone from strength to strength, while also upgrading Instagram’s direct messaging. Snapchat, Telegram, Signal and WeChat, are more examples of platforms which have persisted through the rough times and reaping the rewards with users and spiking valuations. In 2021, Telegram with more than 500 million monthly active users, raised $1 billion, to make a renewed growth push. It is valued at around $40 billion. Snap Inc., the company behind the popular Snapchat app, has a market value of around $51.19 billion. Has Apple broken Google’s messaging mojo? Google has, lately, been focusing its energies on Apple and the iMessage platform for all that ails their own messaging initiatives. That argument is sketchy at best. “iMessage should not benefit from bullying. Texting should bring us together, and the solution exists. Let’s fix this as one industry,” said the official Android account on Twitter, at the turn of the year. Hiroshi Lockheimer, senior vice president (SVP) at Google had also tweeted, “Apple’s iMessage lock-in is a documented strategy. Using peer pressure and bullying as a way to sell products is disingenuous for a company that has humanity and equity as a core part of its marketing. The standards exist today to fix this.” Lockheimer, and the official Android handle, are referring to Apple’s iMessage service, which runs on the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, and is a rival for Google’s own Messages app. That’s one in their present lineup of messaging apps you’ll need to wrap your head around and is available on Android phones. The point Lockheimer is making is that Apple isn’t yet supporting the Rich Communication Service (RCS) standard, which extends the capabilities of SMS as we know it. Apple hasn’t officially said they won’t support RCS, but their views became clear in emails that were a part of the communications revealed during the Apple vs Epic trial. “I am concerned the iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove an obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones,” Apple’s Craig Federighi had written in an email in April 2013. RCS isn’t as new as it once was The RCS which Google is championing, is a 14-year-old standard. It was created by the GSMA, or GSM Association, in 2008. It does a few things well, such as typing indicators and better image sharing. Google’s Messages app for Android phones supports it. But then, iMessage already does that and a whole lot more. It took a long time for service providers in the US to get on board with RCS. Globally, there are gaps still. There are technological limitations too. Inevitable with something firmed up in 2008. RCS doesn’t support multi-device the way iMessage does. In a way RCS messages are delivered to an Android phone the feature is enabled on. Not the user or a user’s ID, which means they would be available to read on any other Android phone or tablet that you may also be using. Apple’s iMessage gets you the same conversation on all compatible devices you own, if you’re signed in with the same iCloud ID – be it an iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, or iPod Touch. Too much, yet too little? In the last 17 years or so, we have sampled different Google messaging services. It all started with Google Talk, residing within Gmail in 2004. That has been followed by Hangouts, Google Meet, Duo, Allo, Spaces, Gmail, Google Wave, Buzz, Google+ Messenger, Google Voice, and Messages for Android—a lot of them have simply fallen by the wayside since. For all the RCS conversation, Google could have been well served by their own Hangouts app. It is now preparing for its last hurrah, even as attention has shifted elsewhere. The 2013 launch of Hangouts as a modern instant messaging platform with video calling as well (much before Zoom arrived on the scene), wasn’t immune to constant tweaking in the coming years. It was repackaged as Google+ Hangouts, which melded in the chat apps as well as the Hangouts platform. In 2014 and 2015, SMS support was added for Android phones. A critical phase, in the history of Google’s messaging apps. It was multi-platform too and could have been the ideal app for Google’s Android platform – SMS, instant messages, and video calls, all in one. Yet, that’s how Google saw it. In 2016, Hangouts is rebranded as Hangouts Chat, while Hangouts Meet sprouts to do video calls. And a new texting app Allo, as well as a video calling app Duo, are released. Allo was killed off a few years ago (2018, to be precise), because there wasn’t a lot of excitement about AI-generated contextual message replies. Duo still survives, alongside Meet which is another app that can do video calls. In 2017, Google removed the SMS handling option from what remained of Hangouts. Is the latest generation taking a new approach? Google is currently developing the portfolio of Google Chat, Meet, Duo, Rooms and Spaces. In fact, Hangouts is going to be replaced by Chat, though the proverbial walk into the sunset has been a protracted process. Mind you, except Duo, everything else has been integrated into the Gmail app too. On Android phones, there is the additional Messages app for SMS (and RCS messaging, if your friends also use Android phones). Even now, Chat isn’t at all refined enough to replace Hangouts. You cannot select multiple images to share, rich text formatting options aren’t fully there and lack the ability to make voice and video calls – though that should change with the new updates rolling out (it still hasn’t for us though). In a nutshell, limited functionality. This may change in due course, but those updates are a long way away still, from making Chat a complete app. And all this is before you even consider how Google Chat (the Workplace iteration too, mind you), Meet and Rooms are trying to be the one platform that works for personal use as well as in an office environment – that’ll be competition for Microsoft Teams and Slack, for instance. The reality is that Google finds itself in a messaging app predicament because of what seems to be haphazard positioning, and development of apps over the years. The question is, even if Google were to focus on one app (be it Chat or any new app) to make a serious bid for the messaging app space, will your friends and family switch over? With messengers, habits are hard to shake.


Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.
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