Practical: Hangouts Chat cannot yet replace “classic Hangouts”
With all the buzz around recently (the recently dubbed) “Hangouts classic” switch off, in favor of Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet, we took the time as a group to try Hangouts Chat. Needless to say, things didn’t go well.
Practice: Hangouts Chat
Our network of sites, 9to5Google, 9to5Mac, Electrek, etc., all collectively use Slack to communicate. Considering that we were already quite used to the idea of group chats and wired chats, Hangouts Chat felt like it could be a simple switch for us.
For the hands-on trial, we all installed the Android app or loaded the web app, opened a new room, and used Hangouts Chat instead of Slack as much as possible. This test lasted as long as we could take it, about an hour and a half.
Strange integration with Google Contacts
When you first install the app or open the web client, if you haven’t been invited to a lounge, you have the option to start a new chat or a new lounge. Easy enough.
Things get complicated when you next try to connect with someone whether it’s through direct message or adding them to a room. If this person is not in your Google Contacts, they may also not exist for Hangouts Chat.
By joining a room, even with the entire 9to5Google team added to my Google Contacts, no one had a display name. Each person could only see their own name; all others were displayed as their full email address. This held true between rooms and direct messages.
Mentioning someone in a message requires their full email address and looks very inconvenient, with two @ symbols. Even your own name, tagged in someone else’s message, appears as your full email address.
Here is the same pair of posts from two perspectives.
I searched through all the possible settings menus I could find and couldn’t find any traces of being able to rename contacts or use names from Google Contacts. This is far loan to the consumer.
More of a discussion forum than a chatroom
For an app with “Chat” in the name, which lets you create group conversations called “Rooms,” Hangouts Chat doesn’t deliver what you expect from a chat room experience. Instead of a linear timeline with optional discussion threads (like Slack offers), each new post is a separate conversation thread.
It’s not necessarily good or bad, but it could definitely take some getting used to. This can be useful to keep the context up to date, especially since the main message of each thread is always displayed. However, the model breaks down with Hangouts Chat’s current lack of polish.
For example, if new messages appear in an older thread, or if a new thread is added to the room, the web client offers you a refresh button to see new messages. It’s downright awkward. And the Android app, for its part, doesn’t rearrange the chat list until you leave the room view and come back.
Direct messaging is solid and simple
One-on-one conversations and group messages work just the way you want them to. They both behave like a typical chat conversation, with no wires or other quirks between you and your cat. Plus, unlike rooms, direct and group messages have a prominent option to self-destruct after 24 hours.
From Android, starting a direct conversation with someone for the first time requires entering their email address to find them in your contacts. On the web, this can be simplified by clicking on a person’s profile picture, if you are in a room with them.
Beyond this minor inconsistency between platforms, direct messaging was one of the best parts of my time practicing with Hangouts Chat.
Integration with Google and beyond
With one click or tapping on a reply to a thread or private message, you can create a new Hangouts Meet video conference link and attach it to your message. Then, with one click, anyone can join this Hangouts Meet.
It was one of the most strangely impressive aspects of Chat. If your team frequently connects via video, it could be an incredible time saver. Maybe when it hits consumers there will also be Duo integration.
Support for Smart Reply has also been integrated with Hangouts Chat, shortly after the end of our test. I went back and checked the answers offered to previous conversations, and found that, like in Gmail, it consistently offers sensible answers.
Beyond Google’s own services, there’s also a full suite of chat bots like Giphy, Github, LucidChart, Trello, and dozens more. These integrations weren’t immediately noticed in our testing, as you can see in some of our conversations, but they seemed to work well.
As it stands, Hangouts Chat competes with Slack. And in that space, from what we’ve found in our working time, I don’t think a business should switch from Slack to Hangouts Chat for now. If your organization has never used an app like Slack before and is already a G Suite customer, Hangouts Chat may be worth a try, since you’re already paying for it.
With a move into the mainstream space, however, Hangouts Chat would then be in competition with Discord. Suffice it to say, Hangouts Chat has little to no chance of winning this fight without some substantial additions.
If Google’s development goal is to refine the direct and group messaging experience to be more polished and “fun”, Hangouts Chat could potentially become a great product for consumers. Unfortunately, that focus would likely come at the expense of new features for the enterprise market, sacrificing Google’s paying customers and their need to tap into a consumer market that Hangouts Chat was never intended for.
Honestly, as it is now, Hangouts Chat doesn’t have some great features to upgrade to the platform, although it has gotten awesome. The clearest recent example of this is Google’s Allo, which offered a lot of “fun” features and a relatively consistent experience for consumers, but offered no reason for anyone to make the switch. This led the platform to eventually join the graveyard of Google.
Where Hangouts Chat really does stand a chance in the future, the competition with Slack continues. If Google could just polish the rough edges of the app and deliver a cohesive web-to-mobile experience, Hangouts Chat could be a big winner in the corporate world thanks to its deep integration and inclusion in G Suite.
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