Recently, my grandpa picked me up at the airport when I was visiting family in Cleveland. After some brief conversation about the flight and North Carolina weather, he quickly asked me, "Can you help me get Google Chrome on my computer?" I was taken aback. My grandpa is definitely tech savvy for his age (he texts, emails, uses Excel, does research on the web, and more), but he was also content using a 10 year-old computer and had never previously brought up a browser to me.
I told him I would help out and agreed that Chrome was a great choice for him, but I wanted to know why he all of a sudden cared what browser he used and how he chose Chrome. The answer was simple: Gmail.
My grandparents had recently upgraded to AT&T U-Verse and changed to Gmail in the process, because their old email addresses had been linked to their previous Internet Service Provider. Gmail would be easy to use, is the fastest growing email service, and they wouldn't have to worry about space. It was an easy recommendation and both the installation guy and I pushed it to them. Similar transitions have been happening around the world since Gmail was released in 2004, building the service to more than 400 million active users as of June, 2012.
Gmail originally just seemed like a novel email concept, allowing people to have unlimited space and an intuitive web-based email client, and something Google was doing to make the web a better place for people (especially us nerds). Then, it became an important part of Google's ad business as they (controversially) started to serve ads into your inbox. Now, second to Google search, it is likely the main way people interact with the Google brand and its services. So, in their quest to dominate the web experience and your web existence, Google is using Gmail as a beachhead to get users to use their other web tools.
Trying send a big attachment? Load it up through Google Drive. Want the best and fastest email experience? Upgrade your browser to Chrome. Curious about the contact you're emailing with? Check them out on Google Plus (well, maybe that one hasn't worked yet...).
It's a smart model and seems to be working great (it's a primary reason I'll use Drive to store big files). Google chose a specific web services niche, email, executed extremely well and has now used that strong position to push farther into web services. It lets them gather your data, target advertisers ads, and continue to make gobs of money. And it lets my grandpa have a better web experience.
At the recent Google I/O conference, Google announced an exciting new app to replace Google Talk/Chat, Google Hangouts. Some of the promises of the new app were having a unified messaging system across devices, the ability to easily integrate multimedia into chat, and being able to spin chats out into video chats like the original Google Hangouts.
I was excited for the new app. During my recent trip to Costa Rica, I had been surprised to discover that there was no official iPad app for Google Talk/Chat, forcing me to download a third-party app, Talk Lite, to g chat with co-workers while I was abroad. While the app performed adequately for short bursts of use to catch up with colleagues, it lacked features like multi-tasking support or good notifications that would be necessary to consistently use it to communicate with others. So, on the release-day, I downloaded the new Hangouts with a sense of irony that this was the very app I needed just three days prior.
At first, Hangouts seemed great. I installed it as an app for Chrome. It pinned conversations to the task bar on my Windows computer, letting me chat with people even when I did not have Gmail visible. The new design seemed nice and fun. And of course, it boasted the cross-device support I desired, which would allow me to seamlessly carry conversations over to my iPhone or iPad. Those new features were all great, but after playing with the service for about a week, it seems that Google (mistakenly?) took several steps backward, in both large and small areas, which ultimately make the product weaker than the original.
Voice calls. The big elephant in the room was that the new Hangouts lost the ability to do voice calls from G Chat from your computer. Considering that the phone icon was one of just two prominently available icons on the version of G Chat before Google Hangouts, it seems like a pretty big oversight to leave it out and like one that must have been intentional. I use my cell phone for 99% of my calls, but I know others who rely on being able to conduct voice calls from G Chat over their computer. Also, it has been a savior to me during times when my phone has died or been broken (I have a long history of iPhone accidents), and I need to hop on a call with a client. Losing this feature already made the new Hangouts less valuable to me, but there was more...
A useless copy and paste layout. I frequently used the copy and paste function on the old g chat. Whether it was to share conversations among colleagues about a specific project, remind someone of a past conversation we had about something, or share silly conversations I had with friends. G chats were easily searchable in email history and a lot of my communication with co-workers and friends was done through the service. The original g chat had the perfect layout for copy and paste: [Chatter's Name]:[What they said]. The new service inexplicably tries to model the conversation with a text message design, which lacks who sent the message and focuses more on the time it was sent, leading to hard-to-decipher pastes where you're trying to solve a puzzle of who said what. Not being able to easily share g chats or decipher past conversations hurts the motivation to have conversations through the medium rather than email (which is already naturally cross-device ready). (Update: It appears this may have been fixed when looking at past Hangouts, now, but still is an issue during a live one).
Messages being sent while I'm away not getting emailed to me. This bug seems like it could be related to a setting I have, but I haven't been able to solve it. In the old g chat, if you weren't signed in and someone sent you a chat, that message would get emailed to you. It was a nice way to make sure you didn't miss something if you abruptly signed off or if someone mistakenly thought you were online. It prevented things from getting lost. Since I've had Hangouts, I've found several messages in the History of a conversation that I never received. For example, I was chatting with a co-worker and quickly signed off to run and do something else. Two days later, I initiated a different g chat with that co-worker and saw they had sent me a message right after I signed off the other day, and I never was sent a notification. In this case, it happened to be a question that the co-worker must have thought I was ignoring. I've had this happen in several other instances. I'm not sure if it's due to there being a delay between my signout of Gmail and Hangouts (I make sure both are signed out) or if Hangouts is assuming I'm using it another device (it is not installed on any others). No matter the reason, it has caused me to miss chats, which again defeats the purpose of chat vs. email.
Lost functionality within chat window. Compared with the other issues, these are small, but things you'd still imagine Google would've fixed before shipping the product. The first one that popped out at me is that you can't right click on a link. I have no idea why that is. For some URLs that are g chatted to me, I'll right click to quickly copy the link if I want to share it or if it is a file link that I need. That function now doesn't work. Also, in the old g chat, you were able to bold words by encompassing them with *'s. *Bold* would show up as Bold in the g chat window after being sent. That's no longer the case, so it appears there is no way to bold something within a message.
The lost features make for a weaker product and make me want to go back to the old Google Talk. Luckily, you're able to revert back to the previous version to regain these features. The Verge has written up how to do that and also is documenting Google's progress at adding some features back in.
Overall, it seems like a lost opportunity to launch this product when it was missing key elements, and with people reverting back to the old system, Google is going to be tasked with selling Hangouts all over again sometime in the future. Poor execution leads to future headaches.