Earlier today, Google announced in a corporate blog post that the die-hards currently left on the Hangouts messaging platform are officially getting the boot. Starting in early 2021, the company will start making moves to “automatically migrate” everyone’s Hangouts chat history and contacts to the Google Workspace-ready alternative, Google Chat.
While the exact timing on the switchover is still “to be determined,” what’s clear is that sometime in the first half of next year, some of the core parts of Hangouts are just going to be fundamentally killed off. Google Fi, the company’s alternative to traditional wireless carriers, will no longer support Hangouts calls or texts. Instead, Google suggests Fi users’ needs can be met with the company’s answer to Apple’s iMessage, helpfully called Google Messages. Then there are Google Voice users, who have been able to use Hangouts for calling. That’s gotten a bit trickier.
“New telecommunications regulations are being introduced in the EU and U.S. beginning in 2021,” Google explains in the blog, adding that, by early next year, the calling feature will need to be expunged entirely. These users, the company goes on to say, will be slowly shepherded to Google’s Voice platform sometime before that happens.
While the company hasn’t responded to our request for comment on which regulations they’re referring to here, there’s a good chance this is referring to some of the new protocols the FCC’s putting into place for telcos this coming summer. The SHAKEN/STIRRED protocol, as it’s called, is meant to crack down on the current scourge of robocalls by allowing telecoms to make sure a phone’s caller ID matches up with their actual registered phone number—something that could be hard to do if that call is routed through Google’s systems.
This news isn’t necessarily unexpected. Back in early 2019, Google first severed ties between the chat app and its enterprise customers—folks that then used Hangouts via GSuite, which would later become Google Workspace. The plan was that these customers would be pushed into Google’s Slack-like messaging app, Meet. At the time, Google told these customers that while they were getting the boot first, the non-paying audience on the Hangouts app wouldn’t have much longer left on the app themselves, and would soon be nudged into a free-to-download version of Meet, or a free-to-download version of Chat.
Because Google has launched a grand total of 10—count ‘em, 10—messaging apps over the years, I’m sure this news comes as a relief for some readers. But it’s also kind of a pain for others. Chat, for example, was clearly designed with power users in mind, rather than casual conversations, according to the company blog post:
With Chat, you can more easily plan with others on goals and similar interests, share and collaborate on files, and assign tasks to help keep everyone on the same page.
From the way that sounds, Chat seems to be kind of an extension of Meet: another workplace chat platform for workplace chats, large and small. In other words, it sounds like the shift to more workplace-friendly platforms isn’t only a way to slim down its unwieldy collection of messaging apps, but also to come after workplace mainstays like Slack.
But then there are those of us who regularly used Hangouts to, well... hang out. In my case, Hangouts was my chatting app of choice during the first few months of work-from-home hell, when the only way to socialize with anyone was to socialize over apps. At the time, Hangouts calls were seemingly impossible to hijack, which stood in stark contrast to the scourge of Zoom bombings that took place over the summer (and continue today). Sure, Hangouts wasn’t perfect—it’s a Google product after all—but it gave me a much-needed lifeline to the people I missed, when I needed them most, and all for free.
Google’s pivot to more buttoned-up messaging alternatives might satisfy the suits that griped about its too-casual look and feel, but it also means Google’s giving up on a platform that tried some pretty unusual stuff in its seven-year history. What other chatting app would let you run adorable ponies across the bottom of your chat, or a tiny mob with tiny pitchforks? Would Slack ever pay homage to one of the best characters on Futurama?
Hangouts’ staying power came from the fact that it was free, easy to use, and pretty seamlessly integrated across all of Google’s properties. It was never built to be the corporate messaging app of the future, and those suit-friendly apps were never built to include tiny, anthropomorphic horses running across the bottom of your texts. With Hangouts’ slow march to the Google Graveyard comes the demise of the only Google messaging platform that wasn’t afraid to laugh at itself. RIP.