Google abandons industry standard for IM, which has SMS implications for Hangouts

by: Nate SwannerMay 24, 2013


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.

Google Talk versus Hangouts

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.

Hangouts permissions

The permissions Hangouts asks for

Lessons learned

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.

  • Alu Zeros


  • Justin Kos

    Well, there goes a great app I’ll most likely never use

  • Going_off_the_grid

    Hangouts is, put simply, the worst tech disaster since Apple Maps. Google was the champion of the xmpp open standard. This is a slap at the openness they once used to build their empire.

    Virtually every feature that made GTalk a quality, standard IM service has bee stripped out. You can’t see friends statuses, you can’t edit your contact list to limit your accessibility, you can’t go invisible. In addition, there are wide spread report of messages just not arriving or arriving very late. And they’ve buried the sign out button deep inside the settings.

    This is typically of recent moves by Google as well as Facebook – they want you to stay connected all the time so every possible bit of data and every possible contact and connection is recorded in their cloud. Oh, and you can’t manage contacts or get rid of those puzzling duplicates until you sign up for G+!

    I really like Android, but killing Gtalk really took something special away from the Google family of products. They’ve totally lost touch with users.

    • philnolan3d

      I have a group of over 60 people that chat via Hangouts and we love it. I don’t know if I see the disaster.

      • Going_off_the_grid

        You just proved my point and the point of the article. Google was founded on openness. Android conquered Apple on openness. And this is just the latest. G+ doesn’t support RSS, Reader got scrapped, Calendar now uses a proprietary API. Google is walling the garden, just like Apple. The disaster is that 60 people can chat in hangouts and not even take notice. One could almost call this situation Orwellian.

        • Phil Nolan

          Why would G+ support RSS? It’s a social site.Reader was scrapped because it was losing users dramatically. What do you mean 60 people don’t take notice? I don’t see how it’s bad that my group of friends is happy.

    • gommer strike

      aye, the chrome extension for hangouts…you can’t even sort users by online/offline status.

  • APai

    one of my primary reasons I’m on gmail is because of the google talk. if they remove it from gmail, there’s one less way to get rid of my dependence on gmail!
    that’s a good thing I suppose! hangouts sucksgoatballs! i’ve got whatsapp for that.

    • Going_off_the_grid

      I feel the next step for Google will be to use that dependence on Gmail to move you into their social network. Integrate Gmail with G+ so that you are compelled to join and compelled to fill out a profile. Google is going all-in on proprietary software. My fear is that Android is next.

      • APai

        that’s one of the reasons we need the likes of firefox/ ubuntu/ tizen going on the sidelines, if things come to a pass where the “open” becomes closed. but I doubt if google will be so naive as to throw the baby along with the bathwater, like nokia. nokia dumped their open culture for a closed microsoft – the result has been disastrous for them.

        I use g+ but not as a social network. i think most poeple use g+ like me – not as a primary social network. g+ is more like fb + twitter, you can follow people passively like twitter.

        putting everything in one basket is not healthy. i am beginning to wonder what can replace gtalk!

  • GandangaTororo

    Anathoer BUZZ.

    It does not work, its G+ and its practically useless. I can use call phone with my credit only windows no extension for android. Something is wrong with designing the messaging and VoIP at Google . Search engine YES.

    DON’T be EVIL!

    • philnolan3d

      How does it not work? I use it every day.

  • philnolan3d

    Didn’t a Googler just say on G+ that sms was coming soon for Hangouts?

    • SeanKPS

      Right, i feel like AA articles are written way in advance based 0n rumors

  • Stephen

    So far, I’m pleased with Hangouts. When I have Gmail open on my desktop, if I get a call on Google Voice, it rings on Gmail before my phone. That’s not ideal for me, but clearly they’ve got some of the functionality worked out

  • KaiserJay

    Um, lets not freak out yet. They haven’t removed server-to-server XMPP entirely; they removed non-Google based server-to-server XMPP connections. They did so as the vast majority of companies asking for access to server-to-server connections up until now have used it for chat spam.

    They can definitely initiate their own server-to-server XMPP connections, as we’ve seen with the SMS verification of your phone number when you install the app, and the fact that a few Google Voice users have been able to make outgoing voice calls in Hangouts on G+.

    Google really should have just showed off the app at I/O and waited to release it with more features built in, because this is really a beta release and people are freaking out without full knowledge of what Google plans to do with the product.

  • Luke Pellegrini

    In Android 4.3, they should make Hangouts the default messaging app for everything. SMS, MMS, G+, whatever else may come along.

  • Ignacio Martín

    I heard that sms and calls where coming soon to hangouts