Making sense of Google's messaging hodgepodge


Recently, I came across an article describing Google's messaging app strategy a complete disaster. It is not tough to understand why there is a general belief that Google has a mixed bag of offering in the chat world with slightly unclear separation of use among its messaging apps. However, it is an interesting exercise to understand the context behind the rationale for Google's existing mobile app strategy.

While there is no doubt that Google, part of the big technology daddy Alphabet, is universally accepted as the technology leader in software, Google's experience with finding a go to market business for its technologies hasn't been an easy road. Mobile has been a big unsolved puzzle that Google and most of its peers are still trying to fathom, which in a way is very different to what happened on the web and the desktop. Google built its empire on the openly accessible world wide web and the the ability of users to use its search engine across browsers and operating systems. As the Internet grew, so did Google's dominance.

However, things have been quite different on the mobile. The browser is not a dominant entity on the mobile, its relevance on mobile has been reduced so much so that Google had to come up with a separate keyboard "Gboard" to allow users to use Google for search inside the other apps, mostly the chat apps. It will not be farfetched to say that if an average desktop user spends 80% of her time on a browser, a mobile user spends 80% of her time on social networks and messaging apps. And this has huge implications for the search giant - the only way to gain the browser like dominance on mobile would be to either become a mobile platform or become an app where users spend majority of their time. In a way Google has achieved the former through Android, but at the same time many of Google's high value users sit in the iOS ecosystem. That makes the Google's mobile strategy two fold:

One of Google's mistake on Android has been neglecting the potential of self owned over the top applications, which has been harnessed well by the third party applications. The fact that Google hardly took any advantage of its default messenger apps on Android for so long highlights the magnitude of the missed opportunity. Facebook, facebook's messengers and facebook owned WhatsApp are eating user's attention on Android, and in spite of owning the platform Google is not reaping the benefits it should have had in first place. Therefore, protecting both Android's relevance in the mobile OS market and increasing Google's share of screen attention on Android become important objectives for Google. Story on the iOS front is little different, although facebook and its slew of messaging apps play a similar role on the platform, Apple hasn't fared as badly as Google in building its own high traction quality messaging applications - iMessage and Facetime. Also, Google's ability to do something dramatic on iOS is very limited for obvious reasons - in that case attracting iOS user to Android or providing them with cross platform applications becomes core to Google's iOS strategy.

Coming back to Google's four major messaging apps: Allo, Duo, Hangouts and the messenger - it does start making sense if we start looking at these apps from the context of Google's mobile conundrums. Let's look at each one of them:
* Google Allo*: Google Allo relies on phone number, is mobile-only and is the smartest move that Google has pulled of from its messaging arsenal. It can not be denied that personal assistants will soon become a thing, and Google's seems to be ahead of rest of its peers when it comes to Machine Learning capability. Among all the assistants available or soon to be available - Siri, Cortana and M, Google's has the maximum potential as we have seen in the last Google I/O event. Google is betting on its superior technology to take on the personal messaging incumbents - WhatsApp and the messenger. If Google Allo does win the assistant game, it will be one app sitting across the platforms with plenty of screen attention, and it will only be a matter of time before users start using Allo to chat with friends. It may sound too wishful, but certainly looks like a plan.

Google Duo: Due is Google's answer to Apple facetime - no surprise about that. It is mobile-only one-to-one communication app, but it's cross platform. The move is a part of Google's mobile strategy to keep users from flocking to Apple and on the other hand attracting the Apple users to Google's video call application. Facetime's relevance on the iPhone goes to show why video calling needs a separate app and why apps must be single goal oriented (more on that in a follow-up post).

Google Hangouts: Hangouts has seen big change in strategy recently; hangout now occupies the enterprise section in Google's messaging universe. Hangout is just one component of Google's enterprise integration. Google's enterprise strategy is starting to align as it put difference disparate pieces together. Integration with Google Apps, gmail for business, Android and Google cloud gives a different dimension to Hangout's significance to Google's plans and allows it to take on Skype and other enterprise video applications.

Google Messenger: Among all the messaging apps the one that is most difficult to decipher is the revamped default Google messenger app on the Android. Android's default messaging service usually gets dinged by users for being shoddy, complicated and fragmented. Google understands that it is high time that drastic improvements be made here. To that end, Google is building a dedicated RCS (Rich Communication Services) client underneath the default messenger app. This would bring features that are usually seen on the third party apps like Messenger and WhatsApp - real time typing, sharing multimedia. The app will be preinstalled on the device and will be the iMessage's counterpart on Android. With a RCS enabled messenger app, Google is giving itself another chance to bring WhatsApp/Messenger users to its own ecosystem - the success of which will depend on how Google handles the Messenger's integration with iMessage on iOS. But in anycase, worth the shot.

Putting all this together, Google does seems to have players for all seasons in its messaging armory. However, the success may not be that straightforward.