Hangouts 2.0 with SMS: Integrated yet still fragmented

Hangouts icon JB

Google integrated SMS into Hangouts for Android. But even with better integration of messaging services, Hangouts is still fragmented across platforms.

SMS functionality within Hangouts is not exactly new, as Google released its latest flagship phone, the Nexus 5, with SMS built into the Hangouts app. And so it was only a matter of time until SMS in Hangouts came to Android users at large. Just today, Hangouts 2.0 started rolling out on Google Play with support for SMS. If you’re impatient, you can even download the APK and side-load it into your device.

It works, but it’s not elegant

I updated my Hangouts app, and I can say SMS integration does simplify things, although not in an altogether elegant manner. I agree with early reviews that the addition of SMS  seems to have been done haphazardly, without thought for better integration between messenger chats and SMS (they are listed separately, even for the same contact). And there’s no SMS fallback for IP-based messages, like with iMessage, which can automatically switch to SMS if iMessage is unavailable.

It goes deeper than user interface and experience, however. Back when Hangouts was still in the works, technology journalists and bloggers raved about the then-upcoming “Babel“, which was Google’s code name for the project. Babel supposedly integrated the user experience across several communication-oriented products, like instant messaging, video calling and SMS, among others. There was even speculation that Babel may have something to do with automated translations (as the name had reference to the Tower of Babel and the Babel Fish in religious and Sci-Fi literature).

When Hangouts eventually launched, it did succeed in integrating most of Google’s messaging service, although it was far from the ideal scenario in which all services were covered. In addition, the app’s release on various platforms has been strikingly fragmented, even as Google has already had the chance to release several updates.

Different platforms, different features

Hangouts on iOS has been updated with Google Voice functionality. Users can now call regular telephones straight from Hangouts, and calls to US and Canada numbers are even free, even for users in other countries. Users with Google Voice numbers can also receive calls with the app, thereby negating the need for apps like Talkatone or GV+ Phone.

Google Voice functionality is likewise present on Hangouts for desktop, through either the Chrome app, Google+ or Gmail. But Voice support on the Android app? Still absent!

Google has had the chance to update the Android app with SMS integration. Wouldn’t you think that Google should have likewise implemented Google Voice and telephone calling features into Hangouts 2.0, also?

What’s even more concerning, in my opinion, is that neither Hangouts on iOS nor Android supports voice-only IP-based calling across Google accounts. It’s either chat or video call. But it never lets you initiate just a voice call, unless you turn off the camera during the video Hangout. Even the now-deprecated Google Talk app had voice-only calling across platforms. Shouldn’t Hangouts retain this ability?

It’s likely that Google is still working on fully capitalizing on the strengths and unique features of each platform. Understandably, it might be difficult to get Apple to allow access to the iPhone’s SMS subsystem, but if Google Voice on iOS already lets you send and receive text messages using your Google Voice number on the iPhone Voice app, then why can’t Hangouts do the same?

I think Google should do better in ensuring consistency of user experience and features across platforms. Otherwise, fragmentation goes beyond Android and the hundreds of different devices out there, but will likewise permeate into the user experience across the various Google services.