I've never been the biggest fan of using an instant messaging service in a business environment and the main reason for this is because of a lack of continuity between using it on a desktop and a mobile device. A business I worked for used BlackBerry Messenger to help mobile workers keep in touch, but this was only as useful as our BlackBerry devices had battery power. Oh and when I'm in the office, I don't necessarily want to be reaching for the small keyboard in my pocket when I have a full size keyboard sitting in front of me.
Google Hangouts goes some way into making an instant messaging application that I can use across a number of different platforms. Google are not inventing anything new here as there are competitor products available, but for the Android user, Google Hangouts is a natural fit.
By way of a brief history lesson, in 2013, Google merged Google Talk (also known as Google Chat) with Google+ Messenger to form Google Hangouts. Hangouts combines instant text messaging with video calling, but curiously dropped the voice-over-Internet (VOIP, voice over IP) functionality that Google Talk managed on some devices. Earlier in 2014, Google updated Google Hangouts to combine SMS and Hangout messaging in the one application and for some people, this represented a great advance. I write “some people,” because not everybody rejoiced at having SMS and Hangouts combined in the one application, but this is another story!
Google Hangouts is available across a number of different platforms. In some respects, it's a competitor to WhatsApp, Viber, iMessage or the Facebook Chat applications. It has a few advantages over the competition as well as some disadvantages. It's difficult to write about Hangouts without comparing the application to the competition but I will as much as I can.
Instant messaging services are one of the most popular smartphone applications. Billions are sent every year through many different platform. There's no one universal system although the humble SMS, short messaging service, is the most universal. Hangouts aims to combine SMS and Google's own in-house instant messaging service.
The first advantage is that Hangouts comes on almost every device running Google Android. It's available as a standalone application for Android, iOS and BlackBerry devices. It also works on web browsers, too, integrated with the Gmail website: the only way I could get Google Hangouts to work on my Nokia 925 was to use the Gmail website in the browser.
The second advantage is that Hangouts is free. I should qualify this by highlighting that Hangouts is free subject to any data charges. It'll work over the mobile network, WiFi or even data tethered over Bluetooth.
The third advantage is that messages are synchronized across devices: you can start a conversation on your Chromebook, continue on your smartphone, switch to your tablet and then to a web browser on a Macbook and everything follows you as long as you have an internet connection. For me, this is the killer feature.
You can work with groups, too; up to ten people can take part in a video hangout and the experience works well too. When you're on a video hangout, the person speaking fills the screen and the other participants are dropped down into thumbnails along the bottom of the screen.
In the disadvantages column, Hangouts needs an internet connection to work. It works fine over GPRS for text messages but this is something to bear in mind if you're roaming without a data service. This particular issue is shared across all of Hangout's competitors but it still merits a mention. Secondly, Hangouts does not play so well with other instant messaging services such a Microsoft Lynx and Jabber. There are applications that aim to combine messaging services, but Google is missing a trick here. I would love to see Hangouts evolve into a proper universal messaging application.
You need a Google+ account to obtain the full functionality of Hangouts, too. This is an issue for people who don't want any involvement with a social network.
Hangouts is extremely easy to use too. You can start a new conversation from the Android People application or directly from the application. Using the Gmail application is also easy, where you can start a new Hangouts from the webpage.
Hangouts is integrated with Android's share menu, which makes it easy to send website links, pictures and other data to a Hangouts contact. This is a particularly nice feature as providing your data is bought and paid for (or you're using free WiFi) this means you can send pictures and videos free of charge across the world.
From a productivity perspective, I find Hangout's availability across all of my devices to be useful. I also use Hangouts as a means of sending and receiving files across the continents and between multiple people. I find the ability to mix text with instant messaging in the same application useful because there are occasions when I do not have access to data services but still wish to carry on a conversation with a local contact.