The great Hangouts pivot: What it means for you and what you should do now

If you use Google's Hangouts app to handle your text messages, listen up: Things are about to change. (Again.)

Google Hangouts SMS
JR Raphael

So you've heard the news, right? Google is officially pulling the plug on Hangouts' ability to handle SMS messages, just three years after ceremoniously adding that function into the app.

The goal back in 2013 was to turn Hangouts into a truly universal messaging solution -- a single spectacular standard that'd work across all platforms and types of devices.

Yeah. So much for that.

These days, Google is intent on converting Hangouts into an enterprise-targeted tool -- and at the same time, pushing regular consumer users toward its newer Allo and Duo chat apps. Unfortunately, both of those apps suffer from the same foundational problem. And neither is designed to handle SMS.

We could talk for days about the confusion and frustration caused by Google's ever-shifting vision for its mobile messaging products -- but we've done that plenty before (I'm particularly proud of the time I used an imaginary conversation to drive home the point earlier this year).

So instead, let's accept that an SMS-free Hangouts is the new reality -- and let's move on to discussing what that actually means and what we should all do next.

As it turns out, this latest pivot is pretty nuanced, so the answers really depend on your specific situation (yuuuup). Below is a piece-by-piece breakdown along with my advice for each scenario. Find the category and subcategory that applies to you, and get a move on.

(A quick heads-up: Regardless of when you make the move from Hangouts or where you go next, you're almost certainly going to have to leave your message history behind. This is due to an apparent annoying quirk with the way Hangouts stores its data; in short, Hangouts doesn't appear to store messages in the global Android SMS/MMS database, as most messaging apps do -- and as a result, there's no way for other apps to import said messages in the way they normally would. Google does offer a way to download all of your data out of Hangouts as a single file, but the file is formatted in a way that'll make it impossible to read and of little practical use. You can continue to access your archives as needed within the Hangouts app -- for now, at least. Beyond that, your best bet is to rely on Gmail as a way to view old Hangouts threads. You can find all of your Hangouts SMS and messaging conversations there by searching for the name or number of the person with whom you chatted.)

Category I: People who use Hangouts for SMS with a regular carrier-connected number (not with Google Voice or Project Fi)

If this description fits you, the clock is ticking. Starting May 22nd, you'll no longer be able to use Hangouts to handle your SMS text messages -- period, end of story.

So what to do? Choose your own adventure:

If all you want is basic texting -- and you don't care about keeping your messages backed up or available on multiple devices:

Get Android Messages. Google's new SMS-only texting app is clean, simple, and easy to use. It's now the default messaging app for Android as a platform, and it'll get the job done without any fuss or frills. (And yes, it's that same app. And yes, I know.)

Android Messages also supports the next-gen RCS messaging standard, so if/when any significant number of carriers and manufacturers gets on board with that system in the future, you'll be ready to roll.

Android Messages doesn't, however, back up and sync your messages so you can easily keep them when you change phones -- nor does it let you access your messages from multiple devices (e.g. a tablet) or platforms (via any sort of desktop or web app). And that's where our next option comes into play.

If you want to have your messages automatically backed up and restored on any device you use -- and/or want the ability to send and receive texts from multiple devices/platforms:

Get Pulse. There are plenty of good messaging apps on Android, but Pulse is the one I personally use post-Hangouts, and it's what I'd recommend for most people.

Why? It's intuitive, nicely designed, and simple to use right out of the box -- but it also has plenty of more advanced customization options for those who want 'em. And, crucially, it makes it dead-simple to sync your messages and access them from any device, anytime. (The app is developed by Luke Klinker, by the way -- the same guy behind Talon and EvolveSMS and someone I profiled as part of my How I Use Android series last fall.)

Pulse is basically like a better version of Hangouts, quite frankly -- at least, the SMS-specific side of the equation. It lets you do things like pin messages to the top of your messaging list, create custom color profiles for different conversations, search through your messages for a specific term (imagine that!), and use common-sense gestures to get around the app.

As for multidevice use, the main Pulse Android app works on phones, tablets, and even Android TV devices. It's optimized to work well with Android Wear watches. And for the desktop warriors among us, there's a companion Chrome extension, standalone Chrome app, Firefox extension, and regular web interface all waiting and available. (The Chrome extension and Chrome app are pretty similar, incidentally. The extension starts in your browser's toolbar and can be popped out into its own window from there, while the app operates as its own independent window from the get-go. The extension also has more options when it comes to things like notifications.)

The basic Pulse Android app is free, but you will have to pony up a few bucks if you want to sync messages and/or use the app in multiple places. You can choose from paying 99 cents a month, $1.99 every three months, $5.99 a year, or a flat one-time $10.99 fee for a lifetime subscription. That fee allows the developer to provide strong end-to-end encryption (more on that here) and also, y'know, to make a living.

Category II: People who use Hangouts for SMS with a Google Voice number

Congratulations! If you're using a Google Voice number, you can stick with Hangouts for now. That being said, it seems safe to say the writing's on the wall. Google may not be ready to pull the plug on Hangouts-Google Voice integration just yet, but it's likely only a matter of time until that happens.

So, you've got a few choices:

If you want to stick it out with Hangouts until Google actually forces you to jump ship:

Hey, go for it. As of now, there is no formal plan for removing GV support from the Hangouts app. Just don't get too comfy. Google's making it abundantly clear that it wants to free Hangouts from its previous consumer-centric purposes, and it's hard to see it as anything but inevitable that GV texting will come on the chopping block soon.

If you want go ahead and say so-long to Hangouts now:

Go back to the official Google Voice app. Google actually updated the thing for the first time in ages earlier this year, and it's pretty decent now. You can find refreshed versions of the Android app, iOS app, and web app. (The Chrome extension hasn't been updated since 2013, unfortunately, but its basic messaging feature still works. You'll just have to ignore the old voice calling option that's strangely still present as a nonfunctional option.)

Category III: People who use Hangouts for SMS with a Project Fi number

Fi folk are in the same boat as Google Voice users in that there's no immediate need to ditch Hangouts yet. Again, though, it's almost certainly just a matter of time until that axe falls.

So think about what you'd rather do:

If you want to stick it out with Hangouts until Google actually forces you to jump ship:

Then don't change a thing. The upcoming May 22 kill date for SMS support in Hangouts does not apply to Project Fi subscribers, and Google has yet to divulge any specifics about if/when Fi users will be forced out in the future. Just don't get too cozy, 'cause the safe bet is that your eviction notice will arrive before long.

If you want go ahead and say so-long to Hangouts now -- and you don't care about keeping your messages backed up or available on multiple devices:

Why put off the inevitable, right? If you're ready to move on and save yourself the trouble later -- and all you want to do is send messages from a single device -- Google's Android Messages app is the simplest way to do it. No frills, no fuss -- just a clean and simple app that gets the basics done, as I outlined above.

Just note that after you open up the new app and approve the prompt to make it your default SMS application, you'll need to take one further step: Go back into Hangouts, open its settings, and select your account on the screen that appears. Find the section labeled "Project Fi calls and SMS" and uncheck the toggle next to "Messages." That'll finish removing the link between Hangouts and your messages; if you don't do that, things will be noticeably funky.

If you want go ahead and say so-long to Hangouts now and want to have your messages automatically backed up and restored on any device you use -- and/or want the ability to send and receive texts from multiple devices/platforms:

Get Pulse. See my full explanation above for all the nitty-gritty.

Again, though: Note that after you open up the new app and approve the prompt to make it your default SMS application, you'll need to go back into your account's section of the Hangouts settings and uncheck the toggle next to "Messages" under the "Project Fi calls and SMS" header in order to complete the transition.

But wait! What about non-SMS chatting? Can I keep using Hangouts for that?

Yes! No matter which of the above categories you fall into, you can keep using Hangouts for IM-style "chat" messages as long as you'd like. At some point down the line, you'll be prompted to switch from the Hangouts app you know now to the newer Hangouts Chat app, but the basic functionality should remain the same.

Just note that without SMS support present, Hangouts will essentially just be another isolated chat service -- one that, in other words, will work only for communicating with people who are also actively signed in. And I'd argue that the pool of present people will diminish pretty quickly once the SMS switch gets turned off and folks start moving away from the app for day-to-day use. Particularly with the ongoing pivot to enterprise-oriented features and the fact that Google is no longer preloading Hangouts on Android phones as the default messaging app, the incentive for regular consumers to use Hangouts in any way is only going to keep decreasing over time.

So if you really want a chatting app beyond just basic SMS, take your pick. You can try out Google's Allo -- if, um, you know either of the other people who actively use it (and if you don't mind having an app that works only on a single phone, with no multidevice support or desktop interface). Or you can go with any of the more established chat platforms, like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or any of the other popular communication apps of the moment.

If none of those options sounds enticing, just stick with SMS for your text-based communication. Or you can always just wait a little while and see what other options show up in the foreseeable future. If history is any indication, it shouldn't be long before Google comes out with Yet Another New Messaging Service for you to consider.

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