Google is officially making its Workspace suite of apps available to all users with a Google account instead of limiting it to folks who use apps through their employers. Nearly 3 billion users with Google accounts now have access to the company’s new versions of Gmail, Docs, and Chat. The change for those who have been using Google Hangouts to chat could either be a cure-all for Google’s messaging woes or yet another Google shift that will only serve to confuse the hell out of everyone.
If you’re still using Hangouts in Gmail, you can manually switch over to Google Chat by heading into the Gmail settings on your browser, click on “See all settings,” and then navigate to the “Chats and Meets” tab. Once there, you’ll see an option to switch from the existing Hangouts app to the new Google Chat experience. Gmail will refresh and pop up a dialogue window for onboarding to the new service as you save your changes. Click on Get Started, and Google will show you where it’s placed shortcuts for Chat, Meet, and the new Rooms.
Google Chat has a very Google look. It brings more emoji reactions, improved message threading, user roles for larger chat rooms and communities, and moderation tools—all of which are features in chat apps like Discord and Slack. There’s also a Spaces feature, effectively a collaboration tool available within any Room in Chat, which looks to be super handy for folks with large families or tight-knit friend groups. Spaces include shared tasks and files, and you can multitask between Docs and Chat right from within Gmail.
The Chat app and its related features aren’t the only things you can try out as part of this new push for folks to integrate into Workspace. You can also check out the new smart chips in Google Docs by typing the “@” symbol and a name or command. This announcement also ushers in the arrival of Google Workspace Individual, intended for small business owners and freelancers. A subscription offers access to smart booking services, a professional video meeting suite, and personalized email marketing tools. There’s even a way to route emails from your website to a specific Gmail account. Plans start at $10 a month.
The sheer act of ticking off Hangouts and switching over to Chat feels like the conclusion to an arduous slog: we’ve been waiting and waiting some more, preparing for the eventual end. Of course, the saga won’t be final until Google actually kills Hangouts and forces the switch to Chat.
And what a saga it’s been.Google’s chat platform has cycled through too many names in the last five years—it’s the tech giant equivalent of a soap opera identity crisis. First, Google killed Gtalk and rebranded the messaging services as Hangouts. Then, Hangouts was separated out into Hangouts Meet and Hangouts Chat. When Google refreshed its work-friendly features, Hangouts Meet became simply Meet, and Hangouts Chat stayed in the same box it’s always been in Gmail, leading many to believe (myself included) that we could continue on with business as usual. And this is after I lived through the Great Messaging Crisis of 2018 when Google killed Allo and left Android users exasperated about having to migrate over to a new app again.
The irony of all these changes is that Google was actually trying to make its messaging apps less confusing for users and smooth the transition with a moderate pace of change. But the result is more confusion across the board. People just want to use the same messaging functionality they’ve always had—changing names and features for the sake of it is needlessly complex.
Google already has a ton of competition in this realm, from Slack to Microsoft Teams, and the only leverage it has is its number of users. And many of those users may seamlessly make the switch from Hangouts to Chat. But Google, there’s got to be a better way.