Use Hangouts outside the browser. An overlooked Chrome extension from Google lets you chat without opening Gmail or Google+.
Back in May, Google announced it was launching a new messaging service: Google Hangouts. This was a way for the company to combine its redundant messaging services: the ever-popular Google Talk, the little used Google+ Messenger, popular videoconferencing service Google Hangouts and (eventually) phone enhancement service Google Voice.
There are mobile apps, of course, but no platform-specific desktop version – most users doubtless think of the service as part of Gmail. But a perhaps overlooked feature is the Hangouts extension for Chrome.
This extension takes your conversations outside your browser and to your desktop, but is it functional? In truth this is a mixed bag. Here’s why.
Pro: Brings Your Chat Outside Your Browser
Let’s start with the obvious pro here: the Hangouts extension for Chrome pops out of the browser, so you don’t have to open your Gmail tab to respond to an IM. This is wonderful.
Every conversation is given its own window, which you can place alongside any other program to chat while you’re doing something else. This makes it easy to chat with someone while working or playing. Beautiful.
Con: It Does So In A Weird Way
It’s nice to have the chat window outside Gmail but the way its handled is kind of…odd. These windows are basically unlike any windows anywhere on your system. And it’s not just visual: by default new Hangouts windows cling to the bottom of the screen, hovering over top of everything. Here’s one annoying window obscuring my Mac’s dock:
If I want to click an icon on my dock that happens to be beneath this, I first need to minimize the window. Then, when I’m clicking, I need to be careful not to let my mouse touch the hangouts bar – doing so will partially cover my dock all over again. It’s a minor thing, sure, but companies like Apple and Microsoft spend time developing consistent window management structures for a reason. Quirks like this can really annoy users over time.
Google’s basically taken something that worked while overlaid on Gmail and tried to overlay it over everyone’s desktop. It would be nice to have the option to use my operating system’s standard window decorations and structure, not to mention a single window for all conversations. The way Hangout handles this on tablets could be a template:
At the left is a list of people, while on the right is the currently open conversation. Much more usable, and an obvious fit for the desktop: a single windows for all conversations. Google: make it so. At the very least, make it an option.
Pro: Group Conversations
Google Talk never really offered a way to chat with multiple people, which is why people used services like PartyChat, which creates a Google Talk chat room. That’s not necessary anymore. Now it’s extremely simple to start a group conversation with as many people as you like.
Con: Group Conversations
Group conversations are wonderful, but they also tend to be distracting. So while I like the feature in spirit, practically I tend to find it a huge time sink. And with the Chrome extension, that time sink is always popping up – not just when you happen to have Gmail open.
Pro: Syncs perfectly with mobile version
This is, for me, the most compelling reason to use Hangouts over any third party messaging client. If someone sends you a message, you’ll see it. If you talk with someone on your mobile, you’ll be able to reference it on your desktop. Chrome’s extension means you’ll get chats in realtime regardless of whether you happen to have Gmail open, and that’s a good thing.
Con: Third party apps are no longer a priority
Google used to be famous for its open-source friendliness, but not so much lately. Hangouts isn’t an exception to this rule. Google Talk was based on XMPP, but that standard isn’t completely supported by Hangouts. This means any third party clients you use – including Pidgin, Trillian and Adium – will no longer show you messages sent while you were offline.
Group conversations are also incompatible with third-party clients. I suppose this is more of a pro for the Chrome extension – you need it to use these features. But it also kind of sucks that Google made these features exclusive to its own client – especially considering the other problems that might otherwise drive users to third-party solutions.
Too Soon To Say: Voice Integration
Google Voice integration is coming to Hangouts, if announcements with no date attached can be believed. Anyone wanting all of their text messages to happen in one place should be excited about this: you’ll be able to send texts, on your desktop, from Google Hangouts – and everything will sync with your mobile devices. This could be a major plus for Hangouts, at least in countries where Voice offers free SMS messages (the USA).
Integration with the phone part of Voice is complete – you can call any number and receive incoming calls – but desktop SMS messaging will give Hangouts a huge edge over its mobile-own competitors.
Oh man, I wish I had a conclusion. There’s a lot of love in Google Hangouts, and changes to Talk means that some features – including offline messages – basically require use of the new service. But its still disappointing to see such an important application be a Chrome exclusive, and have such poor integration with most desktops.
Still, if you’re a die-hard Google Hangouts user, this extension is essential. It keeps you in tough regardless of what you’re doing online, and that’s useful.
What do you think? Is Hangouts a huge step forward for messaging, or a change you accept begrudgingly? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.