Android Intelligence Analysis

Google Meet’s messy message

Just when you thought Google's mess of messaging services couldn't get any messier, oops: It did it again.

Google Messaging Services
Google/JR Raphael

Android Intelligence Analysis

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Sometimes, Google's just gotta Google.

That's what I'm starting to think when it comes to the company's ever-evolving mess of messaging apps, which has consistently been one of the biggest sources of confusion (and sometimes amusement) for anyone who relies on Android or other Google services — whether on a personal level or as part of an enterprise-level business.

You know the gist by now, right? Take a deep breath and let's try to do this in a single sprawling, record-length sentence (and major bonus points if you manage to read it out loud without having to pause for a breath). Ready? Here we go:

Way back when, Google had a messaging service called Google Talk that came installed on every Android phone and was built right into Gmail, even though most people called it Google Chat (or GChat for short), and at a certain point, Google changed that into Hangouts and made a big deal about how that was its new universal "unified messaging platform" that'd be a foundation for the future — and, well, that app had everything a messaging service needed at the time, including encryption and video and a massive built-in user base, but then Google decided to stop focusing on it and instead launch a thousand other overlapping messaging services while eventually repurposing Hangouts into an enterprise thing (despite its name being the least business-appropriate-sounding brand imaginable, outside of perhaps "NakeyChatParty" or, I don't know, "Facebook Messenger") and then also tooting around with new messaging services called Allo and Duo for consumers while simultaneously working on another texting app called Messenger that was eventually renamed to Android Messages and then Google Messages and maybe just Messages now (no one's entirely sure), and so then Messages and Duo ended up becoming the main focus for consumers, for text and video, respectively, while two new Hangouts-branded apps called Hangouts Meet and Hangouts Chat filled the same role on the enterprise front and the regular old Hangouts app continued to exist alongside them but then those enterprise service names were eventually changed to just Google Meet and Google Chat and the regular old Hangouts app still exists and THAT BRINGS US TO NOW.

Whew! Got all that? I'm exhausted. But somehow, that's just the start.

Even with that unbelievable saga, y'see, we ultimately landed in a place that actually almost made sense (if you allowed yourself to forget the past for a second): Messages and Duo were the text and video messaging apps for consumers, while Meet and Chat were the group chat and videoconferencing apps for enterprises. Google made this distinction abundantly clear, with a member of the messaging team going as far as to create and share a handy chart that illustrated the breakdown:

Tweet Twitter

Click the image to view the full original tweet.

Twitter 

So that brings us to 2020 and today. Following clues earlier this year that such a move might be coming, Google is now making its Meet enterprise messaging service available to everyone — including consumers — and actively encouraging non-business users to embrace it.

Per this week's announcement:

You can use Meet to schedule, join or start secure video meetings with anyone — for a virtual yoga class, weekly book club, neighborhood meeting, or happy hour with friends. Until now, Meet has only been available as part of G Suite, our collaboration and productivity solution for businesses, organizations, and schools. Going forward, Meet will be available to anyone for free on the web at meet.google.com and via mobile apps for iOS or Android.

Right. So what about Duo — the consumer video chat service ostensibly designed for those very same purposes? Well, it's still there, too. Just last week, in fact, Google announced some improvements that'd bring better quality to its encrypted video calls along with a host of other enhanced features, including the ability to have higher numbers of participants involved.

And as for the old ("classic") version of Hangouts, which is somehow still hanging on amidst all of this and still integrated in the main Gmail interface for consumer users (where it's referred to simply as "Chat" in the site's settings, by the by, in case you needed an extra pinch of confusion) — well, Google hasn't yet committed to any specific timeframe for when it'll pull the plug and put that thing out of its misery already.

But here's the real kicker: The company says it intends to "support classic Hangouts users until everyone is successfully migrated to Chat and Meet" — in other words, until all the consumer users of that old service are transitioned into those allegedly enterprise-focused current services.

Yeeeeeeah.

In addressing some of the criticism of this whole messaging mess, a Google messaging manager once pointed out the difference between "what a product is for vs. who has access to a product" — with the underlying implication, I assume, that Messages and Duo were positioned for consumer use while Chat and Meet were positioned for enterprise use, even if some users from one area occasionally had access to the other.

That's fair enough. But how does that explanation in any way line up with Google now actively encouraging consumer users to rely on Meet (while simultaneously encouraging them to rely on Duo for the same purpose) and then preparing to "migrate" the remaining consumer users of the old Hangouts service into the enterprise-intended Chat and Meet — instead of into their consumer-intended equivalents?

Man, my head hurts.

If there's one real takeaway from all of this, it's that no one, least of all Google, seems to have a clear and consistent understanding of what the hell these messaging services are meant to be right now. And when the company behind the products can't even present that kind of simple and easy-to-understand breakdown, how are we as users supposed to have any chance of deciphering it?

The result from that is widespread confusion, both on the consumer end and on the enterprise side. Imagine trying to explain all of this to an average Android phone-owner who's trying to figure out which app is appropriate for them and worth getting invested in — or to an enterprise decision-maker who's weighing out Google's communication options alongside those of a competing service provider. It's hard to imagine any result other than something along the lines of: "What?! All right — never mind. Screw it. Let's just use Slack" (or WhatsApp, or whatever the appropriate alternative might be).

And that's a shame, because Google genuinely has some good services. And it has the potential to have some great services — services that could be uniquely positioned to solve the cross-platform communication struggles so many of us deal with and mutter about on a daily basis.

All it'd take is getting out of its own damn way and managing to keep a consistent focus for more than a matter of minutes. I'm honestly starting to wonder, though, if when it comes to Google and messaging service strategy, that's simply too much to ask.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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