To Fi and Back Again: Google’s Inconsistent Messaging Space Complicates Sticking with One Service
I’ve written on Google’s convoluted messaging strategy before, but this was prior to the launch of Allo, which further added to the confusion of Google’s messaging platform. Allo has since been launched and updated several times, becoming a better product in the process.
Google even surprised us all with a completely out-of-nowhere update to Google Voice on all platforms, but this wasn’t without faults — at least in my experience. Let’s take another look at the tangled web of Google Voice, Fi, Hangouts, and Allo.
As mentioned above, I’ve been a Google Voice user since the inception of the service. It’s been my main number since I signed up years ago, and I truly value the convenience it provides. Being able to call, text, or check voicemail from any device I own is an important convenience I would be remiss to give up. Recently, Google Voice had a large update to version 5.0. For literally years, Google Voice seemed like it was long forgotten and wouldn’t see any substantial updates. Now we have a mostly material design Google Voice app in addition to Allo and Hangouts. While the new Voice looks and functions well, where it fits into Google’s ecosystem remains a question without a satisfactory answer.
Building off the back of Google Voice, Google began Project Fi. Google’s own mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) is clearly an extension of the Voice system. To try it out, I signed up for the service and ported my Google Voice number. Mostly, everything was the same. I still used hangouts for texting and my Voice (now Fi) number still continued to ring all my phones and computers. One caveat was the limit of 4 forwarding numbers instead of 6. Overall, the Fi experience was great, and for anyone that hadn’t experienced Google Voice it remains an increase in functionality. However, after the aforementioned Voice update, I ran into a few issues that led me to cancel Fi. First, the functionality that allows you to select your carrier number or your Voice number before each call stopped working. In the screenshot to the side you can see the error message I was receiving. Additionally, I was unable to change the setting to default to either the carrier or Voice message in the Voice app. The new Voice app simply wouldn’t let me use it as a Fi user. The only solution I could find to this issue was simply cancelling Fi and porting my number back to Voice.
Hangouts is tangentially related to all of these issues and really at the epicenter of Google’s messaging mess. A little over two years ago, Hangouts began supporting Google Voice texting and calling. Instead of using an old Voice extension or the webpage, users were able to use the Hangouts desktop “app” or hangouts.google.com. I’m still using Hngouts for everything including Hangout chats, voice calls, and text messaging from a PC. This capability works with either Fi or Voice. However, Back in August of 2016, after news of Allos impending release, Google stated that hangouts would be more enterprise focused, while Allo would be their main consumer messaging product. So far, the only thing that has changed regarding hangouts is the removal of the merged conversations feature. It remains to be seen whether or not this incoming enterprise focus will strip further features away.
Predicting which Google messaging service will make it five years down the road still feels like playing roulette
Finally, we’re brought to Allo. Google’s laser focus on Allo might be acceptable, if Allo had the same capabilities as hangouts. It still doesn’t. Allo itself is a competent application, but the service is questionable. The single-device nature of Allo remains one of my largest issues with the service. Allo still requires users to install yet another application to communicate with. There is no shortage of messaging apps on the Play Store. Google itself provides the following applications: Hangouts, Allo, Messenger, Duo, Hangouts Dialer, Google Voice, and Spaces. I fear for the future of Google Voice, Hangouts and the incredibly confusing message they’re sending with their messaging services. Here at XDA, we’re using Slack. Think about that — a website that mainly writes about Google’s Android related devices and services has to look outside of Google’s many offerings to find a competent working solution… and it’s not like we haven’t tried Hangouts. Admittedly, we moved away to a more centralized solution precisely because Hangouts wasn’t enterprise-focused enough. We all have Hangouts on our devices, we use it everyday for communicating with family and friends, yet it doesn’t cut it for the role Google is supposedly assigning to it. So far, Google has little to show regarding its alleged plans for a more productive Hangouts.
For now, I’m back to using Google Voice and Hangouts, and I’m left wondering, where is this all going? I don’t see a future where all of these services continue to co-exist. Right now, choosing which Google messaging service will make it 5 years down the road still feels like playing roulette. A game of chance is not an acceptable mechanism for services that require investment. Fi requires a financial investment and restriction of device choices. Google Voice requires using a number and service provided by Google to be your mobile identity and trusting that it’s here to stay. Granted, Voice has been functioning for years now, but so was Reader.
This unease and confusion that comes with using Google services makes for some serious hesitation getting others on board. How can I move from Hangouts to Allo and trust that I’m making the right call? Why would I convince friends and family to change their routine and workflow just to follow Google’s latest whim? Why do I have to give up so many conveniences and features just to chat with Google’s bots? Should I plan on hangouts actually being business focused, and what does that mean for me as a consumer?
Google has got to be better about solidifying their vision in the messaging space. The large amount of overlap makes the choice in messenger confusing. The grab bag of capabilities each app and service provide further complicate the issue. Four years after Google touted Hangouts as their “one and only” messaging service, we’re left more confused than ever.