It’s been over a month since Google released its “unified” chat service, Hangouts, to the denizens of Android, iOS, and, of course, PC with a Chrome extension or via Gmail or Google+. Over the last month, I’ve had the opportunity to use Hangouts across multiple devices, including my phone, tablet, and desktop, for both messaging and video. The app does a number of things well such as having a nice, clean interface and connecting the majority of users since it is usable on the two largest mobile OSes, iOS and Android, and on desktops. While the service has promise, it is still missing features that would make it extraordinary and worthy of being a Google product such as presence, better sorting and filtering options, intelligent notifications, Google Voice integration, SMS integration, and Google Drive integration.
Presence is something the old Google Talk, which Hangouts replaced, had and its absence is sorely missed on Hangouts. In Google Talk, users knew exactly which friends were online, idle, away, offline, on a mobile device, or on a camera-enabled device. In Hangouts, users can see who is online by a small green sliver under a contact’s picture and who is completely offline by a faded contact picture. This is not enough. At the very least, idle and away should be added since it provides more detail about what the person you’re thinking about contacting is doing. Perhaps they’re in the middle of a project and can’t be interrupted (away) or they’ve fallen asleep with the computer on (idle). The added information plays a large factor in whether or not you decide to message them through Hangouts, send an e-mail, or just choose not to send anything at all.
Many users feel the reason why Google dropped presence from Hangouts was because it sees Hangouts like a text message. When people text, they have no idea whether the person is at work or if they’re in the middle of dinner. This idea falls flat because Hangouts is supposed to provide a better experience than what texting can provide (one example would be how there are “read”/delivered notifications in Hangouts, albeit not very clear, and how you know if someone is actually online or not) and presence is something that a superior texting experience should have built in. Some would even say a status message or away message would also be helpful and perhaps the option to set those would be nice, but Hangouts needs to at least have the basics in place: online, idle, away, offline.
Sorting and Filtering Options
While Hangouts has a very sleek and nice user interface, it does have one huge flaw: how contacts are sorted and displayed. Currently, Hangouts just lists a bunch of people from your phone’s contacts and your Google+ circles. It does have a small section at the top for frequently contacted people and all of your recent conversations are up top, but none of this solves the most basic reason why people use a service like Hangouts: talking with people online. The old Google Talk automatically showed everyone who is online at the top of its contact list. Perfect. Hangouts simply doesn’t do that and, to compound matters, it lists people from Google+ you probably have no interest in chatting with and no way to filter your list. To make matters worse, people with no Gmail account, and therefore no Hangouts, are shown in the list because the person is someone frequently contacted (whether via e-mail or phone). For example, my Hangouts list has two copies of my mom because she has a Gmail account but the e-mail I usually use is her .edu e-mail address. There is simply no point in having a non-Hangouts contact displayed. Because of the lack of filtering options and the lack of sorting people online, Hangouts looks extremely complicated when it shouldn’t be.
With Hangouts simultaneously logged in across multiple devices and screens, it becomes imperative to know at which screen the user is at and deliver the messages to that screen as soon as possible. Since I use Hangouts on my desktop, phone, and tablet, this has become a point of contention for me. Messages are delivered quickly and promptly to my desktop, no problem. However, my phone and tablet receive messages quite a bit later, which is, to be blunt, horrible. There are times when I’ll have my desktop version running and actively be in the phone version to see if the phone keeps up. It doesn’t. Messages come late and even my own messages are synced slowly, sometimes not showing up for another few hours. There was a scenario where I didn’t receive a message for over two days! For whatever reason, the message was delivered to my tablet, but not my phone, which was the only device I had with me while staying in LA for a couple of days. This is unacceptable.
Ideally, messages should be delivered in a timely manner to all devices. Even better if Hangouts simply knew which device you are currently on. One way to do this is to see if the phone is at home or if it’s on the go. If it’s not at home, then it’s probably safe to route messages to the phone as a priority. This is a bit harder to do when someone is using their tablet instead of their PC since a tablet is typically used in the same location as the PC. There are times my PC is on and I’m watching Netflix on it, but I am relaxing away from the PC on my bed with my tablet in hand. It would be great if Hangouts knew I was on my tablet and it would deliver my messages there in a timely manner, if not right away. This is a big stumbling block for Hangouts because any chat service needs to deliver messages to the user – that’s its main purpose.
Google Voice Integration
Remember that other service Google has that provides a number for voice and texting called Google Voice? The same service that also transcribes voicemails? No? Well, a lot of Android users utilize this service and it is currently not integrated into Hangouts although Google has plans to merge the two services. Once Google Voice is integrated, then Hangouts can finally have voice only calls, which is not currently possible unless you video call someone and then mute the camera (hardly a good solution). Hangouts on desktop can receive calls, but it cannot make any outgoing calls. Adding this feature would make Hangouts a complete service for messages, voice, and video.
Text message or SMS Integration has been one of the most requested features for Hangouts. When people think “unified” chat service, which is what Hangouts claims, they think about text messages, particularly on a mobile device where the standard for a long time has been SMS. If iOS’s iMessage can do it, they argue, why can’t Google do it with Hangouts? Indeed, SMS Integration is something that needs to be implemented and this could very well be on its way as seen by Hangouts’ app permission to read and send SMS. Many fans even speculate that Hangouts will replace the standard text messaging app in the next version of Android just as Chrome is slated to replace the standard browser app. This may just be a pipe dream though because even Chrome has not completely replaced the browser app yet. However, if Hangouts is going to succeed, it needs to supplant SMS on phones.
Google Drive Integration
Finally, Hangouts needs to integrate Google Drive so that files can be shared with other people. Currently, Hangouts takes advantage of Google+ to send pictures (speaking of pictures, let’s add GIF support), but there is no way to send a file to another person besides simply e-mailing it to them (Gmail and Google Drive are integrated there to send large attachments). Skype allows file transfers like this and many users of Hangouts would like to see this feature brought to Hangouts. I, for one, agree although this is not a huge priority to me versus many of the other features listed above that Hangouts is missing in order to become a robust service.
The Future of Hangouts
Needless to say, Hangouts is here to stay and is a premiere staple of Google’s platform (unlike Google Reader, which is sunsetting in July – RIP Google Reader). If Google wants to provide users with the superb experience Google fans have come to expect, then it needs to quickly deliver on updating the service to include presence, sorting and filtering options, intelligent notifications, Google Voice integration, SMS integration, and Google Drive integration. I’m sure all of these features are on Google’s radar and it’s only a matter of time before Hangout users see them. So far, Google has been more focused on getting the bugs worked out, but now that things have settled after a month, I am hopeful that Google will get around to expanding Hangouts and updating its user interface.
What experiences have you had with Hangouts? Good, bad, okay? What features do you think should be included in Hangouts to be a true unified chat service? Sound off below or on Google+ here!