The real problem with Google's mobile messaging strategy

You don't have to look far to see the flaw in Google's "more is more" approach to mobile messaging.

Google Messaging

If you're reading this column, odds are, you don't use your smartphone like most people.

Most people have one app for text messaging -- the one that came set up on their phone by default. Sure, they might have another platform-specific messaging program, like Facebook Messenger. But they probably aren't looking to add more complexity into that lineup. And when it comes to texting, they probably don't even think about what app they use; they just tap the icon for "the texting app."

Google doesn't seem to be aware of this. Or perhaps more accurately, Google doesn't seem to care -- and the company's announcements around messaging at this year's I/O developers' conference are the prime example of that disconnect. More than anything, these announcements highlight just how out of touch Google is growing with the needs and realities of its users in this all-important department.

Let's set the stage, shall we? Take a deep breath, 'cause there's some important background to cover here.

How we got here: The Google messaging saga

Back in Android's early days, devices shipped with two "stock" messaging apps: the aptly named Messaging, which was the platform's default texting client, and Google Talk, which was Google's cross-platform IM utility for non-SMS-based conversations. (Google Talk was also frequently referred to as "Google Chat" or "Gchat," as you may recall -- not surprisingly, as its implementation in Gmail was confusingly branded as "Google Chat" at least some of the time.)

At a certain point, another app called Google Voice came into the picture. Voice was a specialty app for people who wanted advanced call routing capabilities -- a single number that'd handle all of your texting and voicemail and would intelligently forward calls and messages to any phones you wanted. The Voice app came with its own standalone system for texting.

Then came Google+. Google+ added two more apps into the equation: Hangouts for video calls and Huddle for IM-like messaging. Huddle was eventually renamed to Google+ Messenger, and both it and Hangouts received their own standalone icons in the Android app drawer.

Confused yet? Me, too. But hang on: This journey's just getting started.

Google Messaging Apps

After a short infancy, Hangouts expanded into a broader messaging tool that combined its own form of IM-style messaging with the app's original video-calling functionality. Google made it clear that Hangouts would eventually replace Talk and become the company's main messaging solution.

And true to that promise, in 2013, Hangouts relaunched -- with the newly expanded version described by one Google exec as "the single communication app that we want our users to rely on." The new Hangouts would combine Google Talk, Google+ Messenger, and the old Hangouts into a one-stop cross-platform app for all of your messaging needs.

Except, that is, for SMS-based texting. You'd still need the old Messaging app on Android for that -- at least, until later in 2013, when Google added SMS support to Hangouts and finally made it into a true universal messaging solution. The company even made it clear that Hangouts would be "the future of Google Voice" and would eventually take over all of its functionality -- something that (partially) came into focus by late the following year.

A glimmer of hope in Google's messaging gaggle

At last, progress -- one app to rule them all! Or so it seemed for a short while.

Hangouts had matured into being the default messaging program on Android devices -- a single unified spot for any and all mobile messaging needs. Use it for texting; use it for IMing. Use it for video chats, audio calls, even advanced Google Voice-connected conversations. Use it from your phone and use it from a desktop or tablet; it's all synced up and ready wherever you sign in.

Suffice it to say, this represented a significant step in Android's evolution from rough-around-the-edges power tool into polished, consumer-friendly product. I could finally give my friends and family a simple way to set up messaging on their devices that'd "just work" everywhere -- without all the complication and confusion. It felt like a major milestone.

Unfortunately, that feeling lasted for only about a year -- until bafflingly, Google seemed to forget its own message of simplification. In late 2015, the company released a new standalone messaging app. This one, Messenger, went back to the pre-Hangouts era of Messaging and provided a new default environment for SMS-based texting. You know, the same thing Hangouts had been expanded to handle seamlessly alongside instant messaging and video chat.

Google was back to having a jumbled labyrinth of overlapping messaging options for Android users (and that doesn't even take into account the other proprietary messaging clients third-party device-makers often add into the mix). The boiling water really started to spill over this past January, when the company started showing a prompt to Hangouts users that asked them to move over to Messenger for their SMS texting needs (even though Hangouts actually still supports SMS messaging to this day).

Little did we know that even that was just the start of Google's mobile messaging backslide.

A familiar-feeling future

So that's where things stood with messaging on Android as we headed into this year's I/O event. And that's why the Internet responded with a collective "WTF?" when Google announced it was creating not one but two more new messaging apps that'd exist alongside Hangouts and Messenger.

On the way later this year is Allo, a "smart" messaging app that's basically an expanded version of the same sort of instant messaging available on Hangouts -- and Duo, a one-to-one video calling app that's basically a refreshed version of the one-to-one video calling capability on Hangouts.

Both apps replicate a function Hangouts already handles, only in an updated manner and with some new features included. But instead of simply upgrading Hangouts to have those new features and updates -- which would have actually served users in a sensible way -- Google opted to start over yet again and create two entirely new platforms.

Does no one at Google remember the past?

Back when the "new" Hangouts came along in 2013, Google's then-director of real-time communications, Nikhyl Singhal (who left the company last January), responded to a question about Google's confusing maze of messaging apps with an upfront admission:

"I think we've done an incredibly poor job of servicing our users here."

And yet here we are, three years later, moving backwards into that same unfocused mess. Just when the company had started to sort out its communications lineup and commit to a single consistent messaging platform users could actually understand, Google is step by step unraveling its progress and reverting to a state of chaos. We were so close to simplification. Something clearly changed.

The underlying issue with the company creating new apps like Allo and Duo is that messaging platforms are useful only if your friends and family also use them. All the cool features in the world won't mean a thing if you go onto Allo later this year and find no one you know signed in and available to chat on it.

In other words, Google's "more is more" messaging strategy depends on users continuing to migrate and adopt the latest newly branded offering (even when it confusingly overlaps with an existing option they'll also continue to need). As anyone who's ever tried to get family and friends to switch messaging apps knows, that's not something most typical users do regularly or willingly. And since these apps depend on your social circles embracing them in order to be effective, the situation rapidly turns into a self-defeating cycle.

Instead of creating a single fantastic app that serves as a standard on its platforms -- and then evolving and improving that app over time -- Google just keeps tossing out new apps and platforms time and time again. Don't forget, too, that in addition to Allo and Duo, Google recently unveiled a "small group sharing" app called Spaces. What normal person can possibly keep all of this straight?

Google almost certainly has a strategy for its chaotic and disjointed approach to messaging, but any such plan appears to favor broad corporate objectives at the expense of optimal user experience. And that's the real problem: Google's messaging strategy no longer aligns with what's best for its users, especially those on its own mobile platform.

If history is any indication, that's a problem not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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