The Ins And Outs Of The History Of Google Chat
Folks familiar with Google Chat will have lived through various iterations of the popular chat app.
From Google Talk, being part of Hangouts, and now its own standalone app (but part of Workspace), Google’s messaging offering has changed shape over the past decade or so.
Now in its most innovative form yet, Google Chat hosts is recognized as a genuine competitor to the likes of Slack, Microsoft Teams, Webex, and Zoom.
In this post, we’ll introduce exactly how Google Chat got here and the different personas it’s become over the last few years.
Google Chat through the ages
Google has had some sort of chat offering since at least 2005. In many ways, the history of Google’s chat offerings is a history of internet chat trends.
Before starting this journey, you need to keep in mind that Google is known for experimentation and taking risks. As a result, there are a few Google chat offerings over the years that are no longer with us.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Almost every Google foray into chat has resulted in learning experiences or technology developments that we can still see in our current lineup of chat tools.
While all of this experimentation has helped the development of our current products, it has left a list of no longer used Google chat products and product names. The good news is things are currently very simple.
Today, we use Google Chat for messaging and we use Google Meet for video, regardless of whether we are a business or personal account.
Google Talk, Google Hangouts, Google+, and all of the other iterations are now part of Google history. If you are chatting or doing video on Google, at this point you have been rolled into Google Chat and Google Meet.
To see how we got here, we need to go all the way back to the beginning of the internet, in the 1990s.
The instant messaging era
The first big explosion of personal communications on the internet was arguably AOL. If you were online in the 90s you almost certainly had an AOL email address and used AOL Instant Messenger.
The impact of AOL cannot be overstated. If you had someone on your buddy list, you had access to them in a way we never before imagined. It was revolutionary.
This is where many of today’s chat’s norms and etiquettes were born. This is where we first learned how to communicate while working, without interrupting the workflow with a phone call. This is where we first typed “BRB”.
Naturally, when Google entered the internet communications space in 2004-5, its offerings matched the expectations and needs of the time. Gmail and Google Talk were Google’s answer to AOL email and Instant Messenger.
Google Talk was launched soon after Gmail. It was not a given that Google would be successful with internet communications. In fact, people thought Gmail was an April Fool joke when it was first announced!
Google Talk improved and grew over the years with added features like group chat capability in 2007. But it was about to get a massive boost from an unexpected source.
In 2008 we got the first Android-powered smartphone and our first real alternative to the iPhone. This changed the game for many Google products, including Google Talk.
Google baked Google Talk into the Android software. It wasn’t just a compatible app for Android phones, it was an inherent feature of Android phones.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people became Google Talk users in the years that followed.
However, just as AOL fell by the wayside, the old “instant messenger” style of internet chat became less convenient and attractive than the newer generations of tools.
Despite being “replaced” in 2013 by Google+ Hangouts, Google Talk did hang on for quite some time. The service was finally shut down on both Android and Gmail in 2017.
The social network era
In 2011 it felt like Facebook was taking over the world. Google decided to compete by creating its own social network called Google+.
While Google+ did not ultimately succeed in competing with Facebook, it did have some innovative innovations.
This wasn’t Google’s first attempt at social media, either. A year earlier they had launched Google Buzz, which only lasted a year, but provided a lot of learning experience for Google.
The issue with Buzz was oversharing. Its default setup was a bit too social for many users. Google+ on the other hand, gave users a new level of content sharing control.
Google+ allowed you to create different groupings of contacts, which it called “Circles”. This made it easy to share content in a limited and controlled way, as opposed to all or nothing sharing on other social networks.
Of course, Google+ had to have its own chat and video. This was the social network era and we expected to use our social network apps to communicate with our contacts.
Initially, Google+ had a chat feature called “Huddle” and then “Messenger”. But these were soon replaced by Google Hangouts.
These short-lived iterations are seized upon by Google critics as sources of confusion. But all you really need to know is that back in the 2013 era, for the most part, Google was transitioning its chat users from Google Talk to Google Hangouts.
Other iterations and other related products (like Google Wave) are simply interesting for historical purposes.
Google Hangouts itself wasn’t just chat. It was the chat, voice, and video feature for Google+. It was also the runaway success of the platform.
We didn’t all switch from our Facebook timelines to use Google+ Pages, but entire communities did flock to Google Hangouts.
For a short period of time, Google Hangouts was the place for influencers to hold public video meetings with their followers.
The excitement of Google+ as a social network, and the initial rush of influencer activity, eventually died down. But Google Hangouts continued to remain popular for both video and chat.
Google Hangouts Chat also continued to evolve. In 2017, it started positioning itself as a Slack competitor, adding features to give it more of a modern “team chat” workflow.
Quick side note: Google Wave (mentioned above), although it did not last, it is seen by some as the godfather of modern team chat.
Google Wave was one of the first products positioned as a replacement for email. Even back then, Google recognized that email isn’t the best thing for daily back and forth team chat.
Google Wave relied more on message threads than channels, and it didn’t quite nail everything we wanted from team chat. But it certainly opened up a lot of minds to the idea that email shouldn’t be everything.
In 2019 Google+ shut down and Google Hangouts officially was replaced by Google Chat and Google Meet.
The WhatsApp era
It’s hard to explain how WhatsApp just suddenly appeared out of nowhere to become one of the biggest communication tools on the planet.
When Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 Billion in 2014, Google certainly took notice. They also noticed the popularity of Facetime on the iPhone.
Everyone was using their phones to chat and do video, and they weren’t using Google services to do so. Google’s answer was Allo (for chat) and Duo (for video).
Allo and Duo were both released in 2016 and both could be used with your cell phone number, rather than using your Google account.
Allo had some interesting and innovative features, but it never seemed to catch on. Google users continued to use Google Hangouts for chat and WhatsApp users stayed with WhatsApp.
On the video side, Duo was popular with some folks, due to its ability to host video calls between Android and iPhones. Facetime, while popular, was iPhone-only at the time.
Regardless, everything was about to change as the pandemic hit, ushering in the modern era of communications.
The post-pandemic era
While the past is rife with rapid development and experimentation for Google communications, today the dust has settled with Google Meet and Google Chat.
When the pandemic hit, almost all “in-person” communications were replaced by chat and video. This gave us enormous insight into the world’s chat and video preferences.
The world made it clear. They want a team chat workflow for chat, whether it’s for business or personal communications. And they want a “Zoom-like” experience for video.
Finally, the world knew exactly what it wanted, and Google was in a position to give it to them.
The team chat concept wasn’t new to Google. They had been developing Google Hangouts Chat into a team chat solution since 2017. And, as mentioned before, had dabbled in the concept with Google Wave.
Similarly, Google was very aware of Zoom’s rise even before the pandemic. Google Hangouts Meet was already evolving to reflect modern video preferences.
When the pandemic hit, it was time to double down. Google Hangouts Chat and Meet were renamed Google Chat and Google Meet and users of other Google services (if not already) were migrated over.
Google Chat and Meet were also opened up to all Google accounts, rather than just being available for Google Workspace customers.
There have been a few detours along the way. But Google appears to have landed on a simple internet communications scheme that matches user expectations.
If you are interested in switching your business to Google and want to understand the communications suite, you just need to know that Google Chat is your team chat, and Google Meet is your video.
Everything else is history.
So what happened to my Google Hangout Chats?
The most common questions asked about Google Chat are from Google Hangout users who are concerned about losing their chats.
- How do I switch?
- Will I lose all my contacts?
- When will they make me switch?
- Will I lose all my chats and have to restart every conversation?
Relax! The switch already happened. Google rolled it out as an upgrade, rather than a switch, to make it easy on users.
You should still have all your contacts and chat histories. But you may have noticed that it is a more Slack-like experience.
The only other notable thing is that Google Chat renamed “rooms” into “spaces”. Other team chat apps generally call them “channels”.
Whatever you call them, they are the core of the modern flexible work experience.
What does the future hold for Google Chat?
Google is in a battle for the eyes of the flexible desktop worker and it’s bringing a lot of muscle to this fight.
A big part of the success of Microsoft Teams is that it has a leading chat app in terms of features and integrations.
Microsoft Teams has shown that if you get the people hooked on your chat, they will use the rest of your platform.
Rather than simply having multiple chat apps, as Google has had in the past, everything is now rolled into Google Chat.
Google users can feel comfortable that things have settled for now.
And things are certainly good for the millions of Gmail users who currently have free, enterprise-grade, team chat right there on the sidebar of their email inbox.
In conclusion, Google Chat has come a long way since its earliest inception in 2005.