If you know anything about Google’s messaging strategy in the last few years, you know that it’s been a bit of a mess. Allo, the consumer app, launched without the cross-platform features users expect. Text messaging on mobile is mired in inter-carrier warfare. And Hangouts has become a punchline.
On two of those fronts, Google has been making progress. And today, in a bit of a surprise, Google has signaled that it finally decided Hangouts is supposed to be: a business communication tool to complement its consumer apps. We’re now getting a glimpse of what that means — and if the early demo I saw is any indication, it might be time to stop making fun of Hangouts.
That’s because Hangouts is turning into a group chat system that looks a hell of a lot like Slack. Like Microsoft, Google is launching a Slackalike — and like Microsoft, it’s betting that deep integration with the rest of its office suite is going to be catnip for IT managers and cost-conscious CFOs.
Hangouts Chat will still offer direct one-on-one chats, and it will also still work natively on the web, Android, and iOS. But the new group chat rooms — which also offer threaded messages — are perhaps the biggest move the app has made since its launch in 2013.
The core features of Hangouts Chat play on Google’s strengths. It’s deeply integrated into Google Docs and Sheets — and can assign document permissions automatically based on the team that created them. As you might expect, Google is also touting the search features inside the app. It will let you filter by rooms, people, file types, or even links that were dropped in the room.
Google is also launching with some extensibility options: users will be able to create “app scripts” to have bots do work inside the chat, and it will allow third-party companies to create apps that integrate with Hangouts Chat. Google is using that feature itself, creating a bot it calls @meet that can look at the schedules of anybody in a group chat and automatically suggest a meeting time — then schedule it directly in Google Calendar.
Will it compete feature for feature with Slack (or even Microsoft Teams) at launch? Perhaps not — but it doesn’t have to in order to be a big improvement over Hangouts today. More importantly, it could be a minimum viable product for a lot of businesses that use Gmail and Google Calendar but don’t want to pay for Slack. In tech, Good Enough combined with You’re Already Paying For It has a way of ending arguments that a feature comparison can’t.