I was really curious about Google Hangouts. Their previous solution Google Talk worked a lot like I wanted it to, like the fact that it was based on an open standard (XMPP) or had XMPP federation enabled (so you could use it with people that didn’t use Googles servers.) But there were also things wrong or maybe not up to date. Definitely wrong was the fragmentation: There was Talk (standalone app, mobile client, integrated into Google Mail and Google+), but there was also another mobile app that came with the Google+ mobile app and was completely independent from Talk and last but not least there were online Hangouts. And in comparison to that gruesome WhatsApp (that AFAIK still doesn’t have a desktop client or an official way to run it on WiFi tablets!) it was lacking stuff some people missed, like the easy way to find your friends (with their number you already had) or adding images and group chats. But I always recommended Talk and never joined WhatsApp, since they have a really bad security history and I despise their take on client availability.
Generally I like some of the new features added in Hangouts, for example that they included the option to being found with your phone number. Google has mine already as a fallback in case something is wrong with my account, so I don’t mind, especially if I’m being asked and have the option to decline. (Google is getting a lot of my data because they ask nicely, but that’s something for another blog post.) And there are enough people that have my phone number but might not have my Google account info. There is also the matter of including images and other not text stuff. I didn’t expected it, but I enjoy the possibility to quickly send over a pic. And even though XMPP supported group chat as well, Google never implemented it in Talk. But they added the possibility in Hangouts, which is also a nice and useful thing in my book. So they improved in some areas that really needed it to stay relevant.
But sadly they made at least as many things worse: A small thing, hopefully to be fixed soon, is the missing online indicator on the mobile. Another problem I experienced over the last few days is that there is sometimes a delay: I had chat message notifications in my browser that I opened up immediately just to find a chat message that was send 20 minutes ago. I get that mobile notifications can be a bit flaky sometimes, but my desktop should notify me at once when I get a new message in my instant messenger. I also have the feeling that the mobile app uses lots of resources, but I didn’t measure it. It is just a feeling that since I upgraded, I have to wait for my home screen on my android to load far to often. As far as the more integrated messenger experience is concerned they failed so far: This YouTube video shows how inconsistent it works with video chats.
All those things might be fixed in the future, there is nothing fundamentally wrong. But I think the worst decision they made is switching away from an open protocol to their own closed one. Google had been very good in the past with public APIs and open protocols so that external developers could connect to their services. But it feels like they are turning their back on all of that, especially in their newer products. Google+ still has no way of using external clients (I for one would like a „one client for all my social networks“ solution and only Google is stopping that) and now the messaging solution is turned from open and federated to completely closed. (So far, but given that Google+ is without external apps for about two years now, I wouldn’t hold my breath as I tried after the Google+ launch.) This past openness always made me recommend Talk. I knew if I used Talk, I could also communicate with my old contacts from Jabber (XMPP) and in theory with the help of transports even other networks like ICQ or MSN. Every chat solution I used with the exception of XMPP and therefore Google Talk forced you to make your friends use the same network as yourself to be able to communicate with them. Or switch over to theirs. If somebody told me before Hangouts they don’t like Google and don’t want an account, I could tell them to use any server listed here (or even run their own) and we could still communicate. I know it would have been hard to implement the new features in compliance with XMPP, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m afraid that Google loses their openness. With the Google Reader fiasco Google lost a lot of trust and I’m growing more suspicious ever since.
Sure I’m going to use Hangouts and I hope they’ll improve at least the functional problems mentioned above. I’m still very involved in Googles infrastructure and I still trust them with lots of my data. But my trust in their openness, doing no evil and the quality of their services is damaged and I’m unsure if they’ll ever get it back as it once was.