Google Hangouts, the darling of I/O 2013, is said to be Google’s answer for unified messaging. They have been admittedly slow to pick up on the importance of messaging, and especially poor at making sure their messaging services work well with one another (and others). Hangouts was supposed to solve that, bringing us a one-stop experience for all of our messaging needs.
A noted omission was SMS messaging, popularly known as text messaging. A huge part of the overall scope of messaging, many thought it to be something that would come in time to Hangouts, as Google Voice was set to be cobbled into Hangouts at some point, and the GMail Google Talk application utilizes it. Recent news of Google’s move away from XMPP is troubling news for SMS fans.
If XMPP is unfamiliar to you, don’t worry. Like many back-end technologies, you’re not supposed to hear about it. XMPP stands for Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol, and is the standard for things like IM (instant messaging) and the SMS architecture for Google Talk. If you used Google Talk to send an SMS, you’ve used XMPP. More importantly, you’ve used XMPP via a Google service that is, in many ways, Hangouts.
No more XMPP
Google has decided to drop support for XMPP, noting a change in “technical demands”. While those demands aren’t detailed, it should be noted that Google has decided not to support the server-to-server connections for XMPP, which is the real crux of the issue. That particular set of protocols is what would make Hangouts a true messaging monster. That would put your Google Hangouts server in touch with whatever SMS server your non-Google-using friend was on.
Google still supports client-to-server commands, but those are limited to those of us using a Google chat application like Hangouts. Some believe Hangouts also prevents us from deleting the history, or going off the record. While it may access those functions differently, they’re still available.
Cause for concern
Google helped push XMPP forward, so it’s very curious that they now wish to move away from it. The real concern is the openness of XMPP, and that Google no longer supports it. The inability to chat with someone away from Google’s servers doesn’t serve the wants of many users.
The real concern is availability and implementation. If Google no longer supports an open messaging platform, instead opting for one that is only good on their servers, it severely limits your pool of friends to chat with. The utility of Hangouts now depends on either your friends or the industry getting in line with what Google is doing. While convincing your friends to get on board may be pretty simple, asking the rest of the industry to do so may prove next to impossible.
What’s really going on?
Hangouts is, essentially, a cloud messaging service that operates (of course) within Google’s parameters. They have the service, and the right to implement the technology which suits it best. If XMPP isn’t something they’re comfortable with, they don’t have to use it.
Security is a priority for Google, and a server-to-server messaging protocol like XMPP may have struck the wrong chord. Messages are kept in the cloud, and Google is notoriously protective of their data centers. Another way into that pool of information is not something the folks in Mountain View would even entertain.
Hangouts also uses a different method of accessing and notifying users of messages. Rather than “read receipts” like you find on many other messaging services, Google utilizes a “watermark” system. This watermarking protocol engages in a more real-time setting, where you can see if your message has been read, and if the person or people on the other end are responding in real time, desktop or mobile. This is very different technology, and may not have worked cohesively with XMPP.
For mobile, the switch from Google Talk to Hangouts was little more than a facelift. The deeper issues reside in back-end utility, and inside desktop applications. Google Talk inside of GMail will allow for SMS or calls. Hangouts will not, currently.
Many GMail users who utilize Google Talk are resisting the switch, as they make calls and send SMS messages from their GMail. The phone call function inside Google Talk is a VoIP protocol which has roots in XMPP. Some users operate their business making phone calls via Google Talk, so these are very crucial issues for them.
The issue Google will have to navigate is whether or not they will build Hangouts to be that one, true messaging platform we all want. SMS and Making the odd (or frequent) phone call are important for users, and losing that functionality for good only serves to draw a line in the sand.
We’re with you, Google… but tread lightly.