Is it the end of the line for Google Hangouts as we know it?

3 Dec 2018

Google Hangouts app. Image: Emevil/Depositphotos

Google is expecting to shut down the consumer version of its video conferencing app and is instead pivoting into the enterprise and workplace communications space to take on Slack.

A senior Google executive once described the tech giant’s approach to R&D and product development as akin to the Roman Legions’ approach to reconnaissance: you send your scouts off in different directions and the direction that the scouts don’t come back from, you don’t go that way.

In simple terms, Google is not afraid to kill off product lines that don’t fit with whatever its current strategy is. Sometimes, it can be because products haven’t proven popular enough. Other times, even if they are popular and much loved, resources are needed for more higher-priority strategies. I know this because every day I lament the loss of Google Reader, perhaps the best RSS feed reader ever made.

It has now emerged that Hangouts, the clever video conferencing app that enigmatically switched camera to whomever was talking, has its days numbered as a consumer app.

Reports at the weekend suggested that Google will kill off the consumer version of Hangouts in 2020. Instead, it is “evolving” Hangouts into the enterprise realm.

Google wants a place at the FoW table

Most people know Hangouts as the chat app that is contained within Gmail. But did it ever have a chance to really take on Skype? The latter has been given extra muscle by Microsoft as Skype for Business, and indeed the bundling of Skype as a video messenger within Facebook Messenger probably posed an uphill struggle for competitors.

According to 9to5Google, Google has been transitioning its consumer-facing messaging efforts to RCS Chat and Android Messages, and the Hangouts brand will live on within G Suite’s Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet.

Hangouts Chat is intended to be a team communications app similar to Slack, while Hangouts Meet – which can enable up to 100 people to connect at one time – will be a video meetings platform.

If I have learned anything about Google in my time, is that it often creates products to influence the narrative of computing.

  • Consider Exhibit A, the Chrome browser, which is not only an influential product from the search giant’s stable but is also intended as a way of setting the standard or benchmark for rival browser makers to follow in terms of structure and features
  • Exhibit B: Hangouts still exists as a separate app in the Play Store, but users have been complaining of bugs and how dated it looks

9to5Google also reported that Google’s product lead for Hangouts, Scott Johnson, said that both Hangouts Meet and Hangouts Chat will become consumer-ready before the classic Hangouts will be phased out. What this means is that current users of Hangouts will at some point in the coming year have to make the switch to the new products.

It is not clear if the 100-person conference call capability will remain enterprise-only, nor is it clear if the R&D scouts have returned from the direction of consumers. There could be a march at full tilt for the Mountain View legions in the direction of the enterprise. It could also mark a formidable push by Google into the future of work (FoW) space currently being fought over by apps such as Slack, Wrike, Asana, Atlassian and Microsoft Teams.

Google Hangouts app. Image: Emevil/Depositphotos

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years