How To Make Google Hangouts Your Singular Communications Hub

The quietest announcement Google made at its annual conference could be the biggest. Here's how all your chat, video, voice, and even emoji needs ended up in one place.

Until yesterday, you could not actually "Google Chat" somebody, even though that's what everybody called it.

You could access Google Talk from Gmail or Android or the Google+ sidebar (or a poor iPhone webapp). Google+ also had its own "Messenger" app for chat. And there were video Hangouts, which kind of had their own chat too. And then there were video and voice calls in Google Talk, which were not quite Hangouts. Oh, and Google Voice, which is text messaging, and off on its own island. Google's messaging was a mess.

Now there are Hangouts.

Hangouts replace Google Talk, Google+ Messenger, and what we used to call Hangouts, and they pull in voice and video calls as well. All these chats, including the photos and videos you share, are backed up and searchable. Calls and text messaging will be folded in soon, too. Oh, and they threw in 850 hand-drawn emoji for fun.

It's about time Google did this. The Balkanized chat systems were confusing--people just want to reach other people, not think about which tool can reach them in the best context. So last year, Google started over with the goal of creating something that would work across the all the company's products. That's why Google+ sacrificed its popular Hangouts name and tools to the greater Google good, and a better understanding of "chat."

"For this particular case, it was important," said Chee Chew, vice president of engineering and a Google+ platform manager. "Since (people) are used to going at it in this way, a top-level approach, we wanted to have a better top-level tool that is comprehensive."

The other reason, the one underneath nearly everything Google has announced lately, is giving people more reasons to sign in, share their activities and context data, and make use of Google+. But for your purposes, consider Hangouts a spring cleaning of Google's communication channels.

So how do I use the new Hangouts?

Mostly, the new Hangouts will come to you. The main trick to using Hangouts is trusting it, and knowing how to get at it.

You can see them in Gmail's "Chat" left-hand label list, or click or search out the chatter's name in an app and scroll up, endlessly, through your history with them. Google Talk used to occasionally email you to let you know about offline messages--now everything someone sends you while you're not at a device is saved for you, and delivered when you're at a screen. The other party knows you're not around, either, because you see their Google user icon at the bottom of the last message they received and saw.

All your Hangouts are stored on Google's cloud. That means, for example, that every photo you trade with someone is compiled into a Google+ photo album named after your chat. You should not (theoretically) receive duplicate notifications on your phone or in your browser (or in a Glass headset).

There is also an option to turn off notifications entirely for a few hours or a couple of days, if you're in need of a do not disturb period.

And the emoji are quite nice, though most of them are specific to Hangouts--your iPhone toting friends can't send you :thumbsup:, and they can't see the "yellow man with gray hair skateboarding at a 45-degree angle" you're sending back (unless you send it through Hangouts).

If you've grown accustomed to connecting to Google Talk through a non-Google app or web service, you can still do so, but you'll only be able to send text. Google Talk used to work in near-parity with a widely used messaging system, XMPP/Jabber, but is now stepping away from all but basic compatibility that system.

"(XMPP), in terms of what we wanted to do with Hangouts, is pretty limiting," Chew said. "It isn't as rich to do what we want, with video and other features."

Google is making a play to take your chats, centralize them, back them up, and make it all easy to grab. It's the same strategy they are using with, well, just about everything. If too much chat in too many places was bothering you, Google is ready to receive your chatter.

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  • Saul Fleischman

    Kevin, glad to see you breaking down the new routes to hangin' in G+ for those who might not be accustomed to the made-over Googleplus.  FWIW, my partners and I use them for meetings, and we work with our development factions, screen-sharing code and walk-throughs that help gt things done, and we do it all with Hangouts (er, "Video Calls," as per the new parlance).
    I would like to tell you how we are bootstrapping two projects, the intiatives I have going for startup founders to mentor each other, and of course, how RIteTag means to empower anyone aiming to "reach beyond their followers" with smart-tagging.  Could we hangout soon?  (Trust you can track me down - same name.)