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Google Chat goes free in 2021, while Hangouts will lose features this month

OK, now that we’re all on the same page (aren’t we? All?), The first news in the blog post is that Google Chat will go live for consumer accounts “starting in the first half of 2021.” The service started as a business-focused G Suite app (G Suite is now called “Google Workspace”), so accessing Google Chat initially required you to pay for G Suite. But in 2021, it will be free for everyone. Google says it wants a “smooth transition” from Google Hangouts to Chat, and that it “automatically migrates your Hangouts conversations along with contacts and saved history.”

The slow death of Hangouts

With the advent of Google Chat, Google Hangouts will die. Google originally announced this way back in 201

8, and now we get more details about the service’s slow shutdown and transition plans for the services that depend on it. We’ve already seen Hangouts lose location sharing and SMS support, and in the blog post, Google announced that phone calls, Google Fi support, and Google Voice support will soon be removed from the service.

First up is the loss of Google Fi SMS, which starts “in the next few weeks.” Google Fi can use your phone’s SMS app to send messages, but since it’s a real mobile phone service, it can also receive text messages through Hangouts. Hangouts has apps for Android, a Chrome extension, and two web access points – Gmail and hangouts.google.com – so it was a super easy way to use Google Fi. For Google users, it was also home to their non-SMS messages, so you got it all in one convenient app. While Google Chat is taking over for Hangouts, it does not pick up this bit of functionality. If you want Google Fi notifications, soon you will need to use Google Messages, the Android SMS app.

Google Messages has only one Android app and one web app. The messaging web app currently works by forwarding data from your phone, so your phone needs to be turned on for it to work and you need to log in by scanning a QR code from your phone. Google notes that Fi users will be able to use web messaging “even when their phone is turned off”, so it sounds like normal login functionality will finally come to the service.

Google Voice is also losing its Hangouts integration this month. Voice has its own phone apps and a web app, and you’ll soon have to use them.

The death of phone calls in Google Hangouts is apparently due to “new telecommunications regulations being introduced in the EU and US starting in 2021.” Google does not explain what these new rules are, but the timing is in line with an FCC mandate for VoIP services to include 911 call placement by January 2021.

Google Chat is not terrible

Google Chat web app.  It is fine.
Enlarge / Google Chat web app. It is fine.

Ron Amadeo

This is very similar to the second major shutdown of Google that is taking place right now: the transition from Google Play Music to YouTube Music. While YouTube Music is not nearly ready and Google Music users can expect to lose a lot of features, Google Chat is actually pretty good as a replacement for Hangouts. Whatever the reason, I already have access to it in my Google consumer account, and I’m free to send messages to my existing Hangouts contacts. There is no show stopping that lacks features and the user interface is modern and straightforward. It is not ready yet, mainly due to transition issues. I can not join group chats and I can not add new contacts, just a certain number of my contacts have been marked as Chat compatible. However, the core messages look good, and if both people are on Chat, you get great features like editing messages. It’s by no means a competitive service compared to messaging ecosystems that do not restart every two years, but if you just want to send messages and images back and forth across all your devices, that’s fine.

As with Google Music, however, Google shifts backwards again by shutting down an old service faster than building the new one. These transitions would go much smoother if Google made the new app fully functional first and then closed the old app later after people moved on. Slowly killing its existing apps without having a viable replacement ready, it doesn’t just feel bad; it opens the door for users to completely dump Google services.

While Hangouts will lose more features as soon as this month, we still do not have a final shutdown date for the service.

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