Let's cut to the chase: Google's new Hangouts app is an over-the-top mobile messaging service in the vein of Whatsapp, Kik, and Facebook Messenger. Google is not reinventing the wheel here. But unlike its competitors, Hangouts offers group video chats. Therein lies the appeal.
Unfortunately, when my colleague and I tried to video chat using Hangouts on our iOS devices--in separate conference rooms, natch, to fully replicate the Hangout experience--the quality of the video was horrible. The image lagged our voices by at least a couple of seconds, and I wasn't sure when to start talking for fear of accidentally interrupting my coworker. (We tested this on AT&T's network and then connected to a Wi-Fi on both devices. The results were the same.)
It's noteworthy, though, that another colleague who was using the app on an Android device didn't have the image delay we experienced in iOS.
It's a shame, because Hangout's iOS app has an easy-to-use interface and the OTT messaging combined with video chat makes Google's offering a potentially compelling alternative to Apple's FaceTime.
Hanging with your circles
Most people have used Google Hangouts as a quick way to video chat with a friend or coworker through Gmail. It seemed revolutionary when Google swapped out its Gmail video chat feature for Hangouts last summer--finally, you could do a group video conference through your e-mail account, or with Google+ users who didn't have Gmail.
But Hangouts wasn't exactly cross-platform, and wasn't really mobile, either. You could initiate Hangouts on your Android device using Messenger, but it wasn't a stand-alone app and iOS users were left in the cold.
As part of its social network overhaul, Google on Wednesday redesigned Google+ and introduced Hangouts on iOS, Android, and Chrome at its I/O developers conference.
I'll be honest: I don't use Google+ to its full potential, which means that my circles are woefully underwhelming and thus, Hangouts are not that appealing. I'm working on it, though. Soon my circles will be swarming with people I rarely talk to and will likely never feel like video chatting with. Still, the possibility for video chatting with them will be there.
If the image quality issues improve, Hangouts could still grab some users. As long as those problems persist, though, I prefer FaceTime for my video chatting needs.
Messaging services, unite!
Here's the thing about Hangouts: Once you start using a messaging service or social network or what-have-you, it's difficult to switch. You have to train your brain to not tap the FaceTime button in iOS or hop on Skype for a group chat session and instead use Hangouts. Even though my personal and work lives are heavily integrated with Gmail, a Hangout is not my first stop. I sometimes use a laptop at work, but I'm usually on a desktop that lacks a camera, so video chatting in the Hangouts app would be useless unless I'm working remotely or am mobile.
Hangouts mainly seems like Google's attempts to unite its various messaging services under the Google+ umbrella, which is a good idea. Google had a myriad of messaging options under a variety of labels (Chat, Talk, Voice, and so forth).
The Google+ redesign and the Hangouts/messaging catch-up prove Google is serious about social. Though Google didn't mention Facebook once during the I/O keynote, the company is clearly taking aim at the world's largest social network. Facebook may have more than a billion users, but Google has Gmail, YouTube, and now, an improved Google+ complete with Hangouts. Game on.