Google desperately needs a simple messaging strategy

A long overdue update to Google Voice highlights just how complex and confusing the company's mess of messaging services has become.

Google Messaging Apps

Google Voice just got its first major update in five years -- and now my head hurts.

Don't get me wrong: As an early adopter and long-time user of Google Voice, there's a part of me that's thrilled to see the abandoned-seeming service finally getting some fresh love. But then I step back and think about the bigger picture of Google's messaging situation -- and, well, I'm running out of Advil.

The best way to illustrate my exasperation, I think, is to try to explain the current state of Google's messaging services as I would to a relatively "normal" Android user. For the purposes of this little roleplay, I'm going to pretend I'm explaining it to my brother -- someone who is tech-savvy enough to get by but doesn't care about tech news, someone who's tried and used a lot of Google services but gets frustrated with things being overly complicated, and someone who's on the brink of ordering himself a new Pixel phone.

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(If you need further visual, just picture me talking with a slightly less good-looking version of myself.) (S, if you're reading this: Sorry 'bout that.) (Okay -- not really.)

Think how that conversation might go:

So, yeah -- Google has a bunch of different messaging apps right now. Your phone probably came with two. Messenger is the easiest one to use if you just wanna do basic texting from your phone and don't care about syncing up with a computer or anything.

Then there's Hangouts, which is like an IM service. That's what you use now, I think, right? You can send instant messages that don't count as texts, you know -- I mean, if the person you're chatting with also uses Hangouts -- and you can make video and voice calls from it, too, just using regular data. Well, you'll have to download a separate app for the voice call part of that to work, but no big deal. Oh, and it can handle all your normal SMS texting, too, and all your messages are always synced up everywhere, so you can send and receive texts or IM messages from a computer if you want. It's even built into Gmail on the web. For a long time, it was supposed to be the "one universal messaging app to rule them all," which makes a lot of sense.

But Google is kinda trying to make Hangouts more for enterprises than regular consumers right now, so it's getting less attention than it used to. See, Google also has this newer IM app called Allo that it really wants regular users to use. It might come on your phone, too, actually. It has a bunch of features for chatting with other people who use the app -- like you can call up Google's Assistant from within it and get all sorts of info while you're in the middle of a chat, which is kinda neat, I guess. But it doesn't do regular texting, and you can only use it from that one phone and nowhere else. And, I mean, no one else really uses it, so it's kinda pointless.

Oh, that reminds me: There's also this other new app called Duo for video calls. It'll probably be on your phone, too, come to think of it. I mean, it essentially does what Hangouts does as far as video calls go, but it's a totally separate thing and so it'll only work with people who are also on it. But if you want to make video calls and know anyone else who's actually on it, you could try it, I guess. You almost definitely don't know anyone else who's on it, though.

The new stuff that came out this week? Oh, right. Okay, so that's all about Google Voice. It's a different messaging service that basically manages all of your calls and messages -- so you can make and take calls through it and send and receive text messages, and whatever number you use with it stays with you no matter what phone or carrier you move to down the road. It's really handy, actually, but it hadn't been updated in like five years up until now, so it was getting pretty clunky and out of date. But now it looks a lot nicer and has actual modern-day messaging features like group texting and multimedia texts, too. So, yeah, you could definitely just use that.

Google Voice Update Google

Oh, you had Google Voice already? Right. I forgot. Okay, so then you're probably using Hangouts with Google Voice integration, since that's what Google told everyone to start doing a few years back. Well, yeah, that'll still work. But now you could go back to using the regular Google Voice app, if you want, because it's actively being developed and updated again and Hangouts isn't so much and so maybe it'll be the better option eventually -- you know, if they actually do keep making updates for it.

Wait, you're thinking about switching over to Project Fi with the new phone? Okay, so with Fi, it's kinda like Google Voice but not exactly. I mean, you still keep the same number and a lot of the features, but it just works a little differently and you don't really use the Google Voice app or website with it. You'll probably just want to use Hangouts. That'll work fine. I mean, Messenger is a little nicer to use and it'll work with Fi, too, but it won't let you see or send messages from your computer like Hangouts will. And if you talk with anyone in a Hangout -- like the IM type of Hangout, I mean -- you'll have to have the Hangouts app for that, anyway. So you might as well just use it for everything.

Gchat? No, no, that's not the same thing as Hangouts. I mean, okay, it kinda is. Gchat was never really a thing, but it's what pretty much everyone called Google's old IM service, and it was also the chat service that used to be in Gmail -- which was sort of the same thing but not exactly. Anyway, Hangouts basically replaced all of that at some point. So if someone says something about "Gchat," they're probably talking about Hangouts.

Cool? Cool. Um, yeah, there's some Advil in the medicine cabinet. Help yourself.

Now, this is an admittedly extreme example. Most people aren't going to get into all the nuances of Project Fi (even though they probably should), and some of the craziest bits of complexity come from the migraine-inducing relationship between it and Google Voice.

But the point here is that Google's mobile messaging strategy is a convoluted mess -- and it just keeps getting worse. It feels like there are half a dozen different teams trying to solve the same issue within Google, and -- rather ironically, given that we're talking about tools for communication here -- they all seem to be working on separate islands with little to no interaction or coordination.

So instead of having one really great, easy to use, and easy to understand messaging product that people love, we have -- at current count -- five separate and disjointed messaging apps, all of which come with some sort of asterisk and are damn-near impossible for normal users to sort out. (I'm going to be nice and avoid counting the "small group sharing" app Spaces or the YouTube messenger system as part of this ensemble.)

Say what you want about the iPhone -- and long-time readers know I'm certainly no fan -- but Apple users adore iMessage. They know it's the one app they go to for all their texting and messaging needs. It's simple. It makes sense. People get it.

Google is generally considered the superior company when it comes to software and services -- but yet if someone asked me what Google's standard messaging app is for Android, I wouldn't have a good answer. By continually dividing its attention among an ever-evolving series of confusingly overlapping offerings, Google has failed to create a single spectacular standard for one of its platform's most basic functions. And that's especially disappointing, because unlike Apple, Google is in a perfect position to create something that could extend beyond its own platform and become truly universal.

When I first saw signs of a pending Google Voice update, I hoped maybe Google was going to do something radical -- something that'd bring the power of Google Voice into one of its more modern messaging services and introduce some order into its chaotic messaging mess. Instead, it just further muddied the waters -- taking us from "Hangouts is the future of Google Voice" to "Google Voice is its own thing again, but it still kinda works with Hangouts, too (and P.S. have you tried Allo or Duo or Messenger?!)."

Android does a lot of things right, but when it comes to messaging, we've seen an ongoing saga of indecision and missed opportunity. I'm glad Google Voice got updated, but with every new mobile messaging refresh and pivot, it's hard not to imagine what could be if Google would simply consolidate its efforts and create one spectacular app -- a singular, thoroughly supported messaging service that would be easy to understand and could become a standard like no other.

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