About two weeks ago Google launched Hangouts for iOS. In doing so, Google promised to bring true cross platform internet messaging and video chat to everyone. After doing some writing about Google's I/O13 conference, they had me interested. I considered doing a review of Hangouts then but felt it would only be true to the service if I spent some real time exclusively with it. In order to do so, I committed to communicating solely through Hangouts for a week.
There are some things that were immediately impressive about Hangouts. The minimalist aesthetic, the multi-user read markers, the use of G+ photos, and the ability to archive conversations. This is all great. I really do just enjoy looking at the application far more than iMessage. And although Google+ adoption has been low, using Hangouts with your circles couldn't be easier. It's hard to switch back from being able to just start a chat with "family" or "work".
There are also elements of Hangouts that are equally impressive but might take a bit of your time to earn your appreciation. Automatically uploading photos from both sides of the conversation to my Google Drive made it a breeze to retrieve pictures 3 days later when I suddenly realize I need something I carelessly forgot. Being able to click a popup "new message" notification while in the app made it easy to leave Hangouts open on my iPad while I worked on other screens. But, of course, the obvious one is, true cross platform messaging. Being able to send and receive iMessages on iOS and Mac is definitely fantastic. But being able to receive hangout chats on PC, Android, Mac, and iOS is even better. For the first time ever, I could easily respond to a text while gaming on my Windows machine via the Chrome extension.
On iOS, Hangouts functions about how you'd expect. It sends you a push notification, you hop into the app, and do what you do. What really changed the game for me was the fluidity and quality of the Chrome extension. Rather than most extensions, which run in Chrome itself, Hangouts adds a tray icon and a small contextual popup menu to the bottom right of the screen. When idle, Hangouts almost entirely vanishes offscreen save a small bar at the corner it has collapsed into. Mousing over the bar will pop up the interface for new Hangouts and open chats. Receiving a message will cause the bar to pop up about a half inch on screen and flash the name of the sender in orange, making it easy to see who is trying to get ahold of you without jumping in your face like many desktop messengers. And here's the kicker, Hangouts also runs on the web so its accessible from any device with a browser, with no installations needed if you ever want to hop on someone else's computer and see what's going on. Really, when it comes down to it, the excellent use of cross platform communication is what will keep me using Hangouts for the time being.
Sadly though, Hangouts is not perfect. Google has already promised to fix some of my gripes, such as the lack of SMS/voice integration and some small visual bugs. However, there are still problems. I regularly have to manually open and refresh my Hangouts to clear app badges or notifications that I've already dismissed on other devices, people are regularly displayed as "typing" when they may have not touched their phones for hours, and while pausing your scrolling at your last read position would be helpful on a single device it becomes cumbersome and obnoxious as it rarely syncs between devices. The other major issue is simply adoption. While the tech enthusiasts of my social circles already have Google accounts and are most likely familiar with Hangouts, the average person seems to usually be entirely unaware they even have a Google account through Gmail or YouTube. Most iOS users don't know anything about iMessage but they also don't have to download it from the App Store and sign in with a 3rd party account. Even if they fixed everything else, it could be difficult for Google to patch unpopularity.
When its all said and done, I really like Hangouts and I'm excited to see where Google takes it. My main concern is actually that it simply isn't part of the operating system in the way that iMessage is. Right now the two applications function in very similar ways. Push notifications, in app messaging, ect. But all it would take for me to abandon Hangouts is for Apple to add a quick reply system or message composition in notification center or any other deep system integration that an app from the App Store would never be allowed to do. And really, I'd rather have that integration than cross platform messaging with Windows. But until we see it, I'll be reveling in everything Hangouts is that iMessage isn't.
Written by Samuel Strickland