30 August 2021

Ars Technica: “A decade and a half of instability: The history of Google messaging apps”

Even with all this shoddy history, Google doesn’t seem to have learned anything. Today, the confusing, intimidating pile of Google Messaging services is bigger than it has ever been, with Google Chat, Google Messages/RCS, Google Voice/Project Fi, and separate messaging services in Photos, Messages, Pay, Assistant, Stadia, Maps, and Phone. If you’re really an expert, you can probably narrow this list down somewhat, but Google is still simultaneously pushing the enterprise-first-but-also-consumer-messaging app, Google Chat, while also duplicating efforts and muddying its sales pitch to users with RCS on Google Messages. Which services does Google really care about? Which one is the future of the company? It’s hard to say.

The overwhelming impression from Google’s continual messaging chaos is that nobody at the company is really in charge. Some products at Google get mandatory support and hiring (like the advertising division), but others, like messaging, rely on the enthusiasm and availability of individual employees to be continually supported and stay running. Google has previously defended this hands-off management style as letting a thousand flowers bloom, but the company’s messaging situation is more like a yard full of weeds—neglected, embarrassing, and damaging to the company’s reputation.

I’ve written before about how Google’s constant product shutdowns damage the brand, and messaging apps are one of the biggest contributors to the growing Google graveyard. Switching to a messaging app requires a big commitment, with the need to get friends and family to switch. Like any social app, messaging apps are dependent on the network effect, and shutting them down every two years is a great way to sabotage any possible user adoption.

Ron Amadeo

I must admit I didn’t have the patience to read through this massive piece (I skimmed the table of contents amazed at how many messaging launches from Google I ignored in recent years), but you can hardly argue with its conclusion. Google’s complete inability to put together a half-decent strategy for messaging has become a running joke in tech publications.

Other tech giant do not have a spotless track record in this area either: Apple may have a flagship product in iMessage, but its massive popularity in some countries comes mainly from being the default messaging app on the most popular smartphone; Facebook obviously has Messenger, which hasn’t stopped the company from panicking and acquiring its more popular competitor, WhatsApp; Microsoft bought Skype at some point, but neglected it for so long that it is now replacing it with Teams in Windows 11 – which I’m pretty sure has much higher adoption in the business environment than in personal contexts. But none of them have failed so often and so embarrassingly as Google.

A decade and a half of instability: The history of Google messaging apps

A possible explanation, which I personally find very compelling, could be internal infighting and corporate politics. Then again, a crippling level of power struggles points to a failure of top management, who should set clear guidelines and long-term strategy, not allow each team to work aimlessly on their own project, without synergies with other departments.

Google is full of smart engineers, but also full of product managers who are either incompetent or forced to engage in full-scale internal warfare to defend their project/sabotage the fifteen internal competitors. The only reason the entire place hasn’t come to a screeching halt is because ads are a perpetual motion machine of profit.


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