This week I saw a demo of the best messaging system yet. One where SMS and non-SMS messages, all calls, come to all your devices automatically. It only had one major flaw. It's trapped on an iPhone.
The promised beauty of the new iMessage is that it manufactures the illusion that everyone you know is also using iMessage. Yes, their message bubbles are a different color (presumably so you can scoff at them) but other than that, it's an upgrade that makes iPhone users feel like everyone else in the world finally got an iPhone too. For those of us on the outside though, it's not nearly as fun. If you want to reap the full benefits, the price of admission is steep: A full fleet of Apple devices.
It doesn't have to be that way. Not at all! The solution is so simple that it's almost embarrassing. Apple uses iMessage the way it uses all its services: to keep you in its loving, hardware embrace forever. The counter-attack is a simple one. Steal it and make it open. And Google is the one company who can make that happen, almost overnight.
Google Hangouts was supposed to have figured this out already. In the lead-up to its announcement, it started popping up in whispers by the name of Babel, the universal chat client that could fix our problems forever. That wasn't what we got, though. And while Hangouts has made improvements along the way, it's still not everything that it could and should be. All the ingredients are there, though, just waiting to be mixed together.
Google's Hangout app is already in the hands of millions of Android users. Ever since Google made the switch to replace the old, boring "messaging" with Hangouts on newer phones, Android users everywhere have been enlisted into the ecosystem the same way iPhone users are by default iMessage users. And even those who don't actively use Hangouts for whatever reason—folks with ancient and/or Samsung phones—still have accounts waiting for them through the Google Account they logged in with, that @gmail.com address that everybody has.
The texting part? Uhhhh, Google Voice, anyone? I've long called for the unremitting death of the lifeless corpse that is Google Voice so that its powers can be melded into Hangouts proper, and now is the time! Google Voice already offers the same wonderful texts-on-your-computer features that iMessage is stepping up to, the only problem is that they're trapped in a service that sucks.
The last piece of the puzzle is the desktop side. There aren't nearly as many Chromebooks out there as there are Macs, but there are a ton of people using Chrome, a browser that works on all operating systems. Yes, you can manually install a Hangouts extension to get Hangouts messages on your PC, but not the texts. Bake that functionality right into Chrome, and you've got instant ubiquity.
Google Hangouts is already on iOS and in Chrome, but that's just not enough. Once you merge it with Google Voice's SMS powers though, the potential is compelling.
It's late on Friday. I'm just getting out of work. I've got a date to catch a movie but I'm running just a little late. I fire off a quick text to my girlfriend through Hangouts from the open Chrome window on my Mac. If she has the Hangouts app on her iPhone or iPad, it'll show up there. But if not, it arrives as a text—a solution that works even for Hangout-less Windows Phones.
And when she texts me back to let me know that it's at 7:45 not 7:15, the message pops up on the phone in my pocket, the tablet in my backpack, the Android Wear smartwatch on my wrist(?). Dismiss the notification on any one of those, it disappears everywhere.
So far, Google has just been toying with Hangouts, poking at it with an idle sort of curiosity. It took Hangouts forever to turn into an SMS client, and even then the application was (and still is) shoddy. Hangouts mysteriously (and maddeningly) can be used to make voice calls on iOS devices, but not on Android. Google Voice is a unique service with an army of staunch defenders, but it's been shambling along as a zombie for years now.
But with their powers combined, these apps could voltron into something truly incredible. It wouldn't be entirely universal—maybe Microsoft will never allow Hangouts on its phones—but it could become the open iMessage. A (mostly) frictionless chat solution that doesn't lock you into one brand of phone or a specific desktop operating system. Anyone—from Skype to GroupMe to WhatsApp to Facebook—can try to get people to opt-in to their solution, but Google's in a perfect position to go toe-to-toe with Apple and win by just making Hangouts both better and more ubiquitous.
Luckily the service that could do it could be just around the corner. Google I/O is coming up, and there's hardly a better time for Google to trot out something awesome like this. Of course, that's what we were hoping for last I/O and here we are, still waiting. So come on Google; pull it together and give us the chat service we deserve.