So, in case you haven’t heard, GTalk has been replaced by Hangouts – to much fanfare.
At first I was cautiously optimistic. I like Hangouts in Google+ – although I don’t use them that often. I have a feeling this move might have been long in the works, too, because when Google+ first arrived we had a strange messaging app called Huddle. It was like a text-only hangout for mobile phone users. This app didn’t last long, and we iterated through things like Google+ Messenger and then just Hangouts which was fast becoming Google+’s killer feature.
So, in hindsight, it is no surprise that Google merged GTalk into Hangouts as well. A grand unifying instant messenger. It makes a lot of sense. There was a lot of overlap between Hangouts and GTalk; what with both capable of video calling and text chat using the same Gmail account for authentication. It just made sense to merge them together.
Google did go one step further, though, and added some spiffy stuff to Hangouts. Essentially upgrading my experience. I didn’t know how useful this would be, but as it turns out I’m quite liking it. It’s a combination of bringing everyone into the fold, and having hangouts stay persistent. Basically all of my friends used GTalk, but very few of them use Google+ (in fact they use social media very sparingly in general.) Now the two are merged. So I can just send a message off to the lot of them and know that they will read it on their own time (but, and this is important, not miss it entirely.) Previously I could invite them all to a Gtalk session… but by the time everyone got the invite and actually joined in, the conversation was over. I could post on Google+ to their circle, but it required them to log in and check it. Depending on their notification settings and when they logged in often they would not even know anything was posted. I could force Google+ to email them, and sometimes I do if I really think they should read what I’ve posted – but they infrequently join in on the conversation. That’s not the point anyway. The idea of posting to a social network like that is so they can go and find stuff I think they might find interesting on their own time.
I could also email, but again, it’s not really the right tool for the job. Email doesn’t have any real immediacy about it. Replies could be singular, or replied to all. It is mostly psychological, for sure, but the uses for email and therefore email’s design – the types of things you receive in your inbox – indicate 24-48hrs sort of a turn around. I like to have a reply (and send replies) as quickly as possible, but if I’m using email it’s usually because I’m fine with that sort of turn around (also it’s the only practical solution for those who, for some reason, are not using gmail.)
With the new Hangouts, however, I can fire off a message to a specific circle of friends and it pops up on their phone. They can still read it at their leisure, but the turn around is more like 0-4 hrs. It has some niceties with it too, such as a profile pic of the Hangout members underneath the last message they’ve read, so you can tell exactly what everyone has seen. I’ve been using it to organise online gaming sessions with great success. I can shoot out a message like “Heroes of Newerth tonight – who’s in?” to my HON circle. Some guys will respond with “I’ll be around” etc. but, and this is key, even if they don’t, I can see when they’ve seen the message. It’s a safe bet that if they’ve seen the message and not responded, they won’t be around. And if they do choose to join us, they’ve read the conversation and can see what time we’re kicking off. The final nice feature is that the hangout is persistent. It’s a little thing, but it means I can just open it again the next night, and fire off a quick message to see who’s around again.
Ok, so it took a short while to warm up to Hangouts, but it has some nice stuff. However, and this was originally going to be the point of this post, it has taken away a feature that I found critical and it completely breaks the experience. If I had a choice to go back, I would, just for this one feature despite all the nice things Hangout brings.
That feature is statuses. You used to be able to tell at a glance if someone was active, afk, busy, or offline. You could also tell if they were on their phone or PC. Instead, it’s been replaced with a single, green line. I think you’re suppose to be able to tell if they’re offline or not by how grey their profile pic is… but for the life of me I can’t tell the difference. My friends don’t tend to have bright, vibrant profile pictures so it’s obvious when they go black and white… sorry. I’m not even sure what the green line means – just currently active, I suppose. No-idea if they’re on their phone or PC. No idea if they’re busy or inactive. It’s a criminal loss of information.
This may hit other people less than me, but the other major problem is losing the GTalk status text too. The green/orange/red light was important, but my brother and I had set up Tasker to update our gtalk status with our location. Just roughly, you know? “At home” “At work” “out and about.” That sort of thing. Enough that our friends and family could tell where we were at a glance, but not so much that we could be hit by a long range missile. It was so incredibly handy. Gone. Poof. So annoying!! Arg!
I hope that statuses will make a come-back, but I actually don’t think so. If I had to guess I’d say that persistent status stuff like that is supposed to be done on Google+. So it would be seen as a double-up, which Google has worked to eliminate with this merging. So I have to find a way to post a status to Google+ every 10 minutes, I suppose, in such a way that it doesn’t spam my wall. I’m not sure that’s possible….