Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Let's Not Rush Google on SMS Support in Hangouts

There is a lot of recent buzz about SMS and MMS support coming to Hangouts.  Google previously confirmed this is in the works, and the other day Android Police presented evidence that this is coming 'soon.'  This has sparked a flurry of posts that SMS support is finally coming, as though the five months since the release of Hangouts has been an eternity.

Seamless integration
The important thing to consider is why you really want SMS support in Hangouts, i.e. what do you want out of it?  If all you want is for your text messages to show up in the Hangouts app, this should be no problem, and maybe five months does seem like a long wait.  But I suspect for people who think this is what they want, they would be immediately disappointed with the lack of additional functionality.

I suspect what everyone really wants is the type of seamless experience that iMessage delivers on iPhone, with all the bells and whistles of Hangouts.  iMessage is, in my opinion, about the best, most innovative, and yet underrated feature on iPhone.

The reason it is so underrated is because you don't even think about it, or what it's really doing, sending an 'iMessage' if you're chatting with someone also using an iPhone, or an SMS if you're chatting with people on any other phone.  There are visual indicators of this, but it seems a lot of people don't seem to realize it, because you don't have to fiddle with any settings or tell the app how to behave, which is an ideal user experience.

Cross-platform is complicated
Part of the beauty of using Hangouts is that you can set down your phone and continue a conversation from your browser.  It just works.  iMessage works well when you just use it as a handset messaging tool.  It's when you try to create the seamless experience across your iPhone, iPad, and Mac that you run into problems.

Apple focused on making it work out of the box to send iMessages vs. SMS by automatically configuring iMessage with your phone number.  This is where they began to run into problems when people tried to make it work as expected across their tablets and computers.  To fix the problem, people have to associate iMessage with an email address or Apple ID instead of their phone number, and get their contacts to message them using that contact info, instead of their phone number.  This effectively breaks that settings-free seamless experience.

While everyone was lamenting the lack of SMS support in Hangouts at launch, others were crying foul that Hangouts required access to read your phone number and text messages.  This permission made verifying your phone number a seamless user experience.  Think back to when you installed Hangouts.  Did you have to copy and paste a verification code into Hangouts?  I didn't.  In fact, I didn't even see the verification message, Hangouts just intercepted it and started working.

More than that, it laid the groundwork for SMS integration.  By associating both your Google account and your phone number with Hangouts early on, Google hopefully avoided such problems when SMS integration does arrive.  Of course, if you chose not to verify your phone number when you installed Hangouts, this is something you'll have to do eventually if you want to use SMS in Hangouts.

Doin' it right
I speculate that the vast majority of iMessage users have iPhones, while there are a lot of people who use Hangouts who may not use an Android phone.  Part of this is due to the great features that are already part of Hangouts, like video calls.  People are using Hangouts on their computers to make video calls, chat with their Google+ contacts, or watch Hangouts on Air.

This creates an interesting dilemma for SMS integration if you want an experience that 'just works.'  What if my parents only use Hangouts on their PC when we do video calls?  How should Hangouts determine whether it should send them a message via Hangouts vs. an SMS? 

What if my contact is an iOS user, where Hangouts doesn't have the same access to the phone identity and SMS as it does on Android?  How will those messages be handled?

Whatever the situation, there is a balance to be made between out-of-the-box functionality, and making things work the way users want and expect by changing settings.  Ultimately, it takes time to weigh the options, and come up with the best solution they can.  Over time, defaults and functionality may change to reflect how people actually use the service.

Users need to find a balance too.  Do you want it now, or do you want it right?  You can't have both.  What you can expect is a great product that will get better over time.

I'm not a big SMS user, but I do use Google Voice.  One of my frustrations is that if I send an SMS with Google Voice, and get a reply, tapping the notification opens the Messages app.  Subsequently, I often end up replying using my mobile number, rather than my Google Voice number.  Google Voice probably won't be integrated into Hangouts nearly as soon as SMS is, but I'm willing to wait and see that it has been carefully thought out, knowing that it might not be perfect, but it will also get better.