A few days ago, a set of leaked images pointed to some pretty drastic changes to the Google Hangouts Android app, the biggest of which was that users would be able to send SMS messages without having to switch into another messaging application. Well, Vic Gundotra trotted onstage at a Google+ event in San Francisco (after a power outage caused a half hour stream delay, no less) today to confirm exactly that.
The Hangouts Android app will be indeed able to fire off bog-standard text messages, as well as share a user’s location and send/display animated GIFs like this one when the update rolls out in a few days.
If you’ll recall, the iOS version of the Hangouts app got at least one of these tweaks ahead of the Android version (which was a surprising and refreshing change of pace) — as of about two weeks ago, iOS Hangouts users could send and receive animated GIFs, and got the ability to make Google Voice calls over a data network as an added bonus. (I should note that last bit is a bummer, but it’s a story for another time).
But really, it’s that SMS support bit that seems the most intriguing if only because we’re starting to see some peculiar movement in the messaging space by players that have sought to own it. Take Facebook for instance. Earlier today it pulled back the curtain on a revamped Messenger app for Android, and the once-present support for sending SMS messages from certain Android devices is officially gone. To hear Facebook tell it, the feature was the victim of poor traction so it got axed. Fair enough — there are more than enough mobile messaging apps out there to fill the chat void for certain users, and Facebook Messenger is poised to reach plenty of them.
So two companies, two drastically different approaches to SMS. Though both aim to connect as many of their users as possible, Google’s approach is one that needs to be as fundamentally inclusive to Android users as possible. I don’t see Google axing SMS support even if it’s as much of a drag as Facebook’s attempt was.
Now that’s not to say that Google is necessarily dead set on owning the messaging experience on Android; that would run counter to the openness of Android itself, and it’s already been confirmed that users can set other SMS apps as the default in Android 4.4 KitKat. But there’s little question that Hangouts is much more attractive now than it was just a few hours ago.
This curious little addition has also revived questions about the future of some of Google’s other apps. Hangouts on Android is itself a fairly robust messaging application, and more than a few people have wondered whether or not it’s ultimately going to replace the occasionally iffy Google Voice app as a sort of centralized communications hub. At least, I’m hoping that’s ultimately where Google is taking things.
Either way, SMS support in Hangouts could also serve as a shot across Apple’s bow — the folks at Cupertino often tout iMessage’s cross-device capabilities, but in practice the service doesn’t always work as well as it should.