Why would Google want to confuse its own users by introducing a third, separate messaging app for mobile? Surely that wouldn’t make sense, given the clash of native, manufacturer-brand and free-to-download messaging apps already competing for the texting attention of smartphone users?
But that’s exactly what Google has done, releasing a new messaging app for Android that’s separate from its Hangouts app and most Android device’s default messaging app.
Google Messenger is a stripped back text messaging app that can only send and receive SMS and MMS, and can’t send messages over the internet like rivals WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or even Google’s Hangouts app. It updates the basic text messaging app that comes pre-installed on almost every Android smartphone, and is part of Google’s strategy to uncouple its apps from its Android operating system.
This conscious uncoupling is a good thing, because it allows Google and others to update the core apps on an Android phone through the Google Play store, rather than having to wait for updates to the operating system.
But it also demonstrates Google’s confused software strategy for Android, with multiple apps that do the same thing all from the same company.
Google started its text messaging with the Messaging app, which came built in to every Android device. Then there was Google Voice, which offered US customers one universal phone number to use across multiple devices, for both calls and texts.
Later came Google Chat, a mobile extension of Google’s instant messaging app from Gmail, which morphed into Hangouts. Initially Google Hangouts couldn’t send and receive SMS, instead operating only over the internet like WhatsApp, but connecting to Google Chat for messaging desktop users as well as smartphone users.
Hangouts then received the ability to send SMS messages in April, making it the the one messaging app for Google’s services and text messages. At the same time all Android smartphones also had at least one other text messaging app baked into the operating system, creating duplication that couldn’t be removed.
Now Google has yet another text messaging app, meaning users of Android phones made by Samsung, Sony, HTC and LG could have not one, not two, but three apps installed that can send and receive text messages. And that’s before anything like Facebook Messenger or third-party text-messaging apps are installed.
With multiple apps all able to send text messages installed it causes confusion: which one do users use? Should you disable some? What happens if a text message opens in one? Do they sync across to the others?
Photos or Gallery?
The Android gallery app and Google Photos app is another classic example. Gallery is baked into Android as the default photo-handling app. It cannot be removed and ends up duplicating almost all functionality with Photos. And then Photos duplicates almost all the functions of Google’s other photography app Snapseed.
To make matters worse, Android manufacturers such as Samsung, HTC and Sony all develop and install their own versions of the Gallery app, with similar but often more advanced functionality to Photos.
It is clear Google intended Photos to replace the Gallery app with automated photo backup, sharing to Google+ and with built-in photo editing, but it hasn’t taken that important step of actually displacing Gallery from Android. Even Google’s Behshad Behzadi, lead technical manager on conversational voice search, admitted in a conversation with me that the situation is confused.
The advantage of Android means that these apps can be ignored, because one can be set as the default app meaning the others never have to be used. But pre-installed apps often can’t removed, and so sit there redundant on the smartphone.
It’s not an issue for the tech savvy, but for those less sure of their smartphone it’s an added annoyance.
Facebook. No, WhatsApp. No, Instagram. No, Slingshot?
Google isn’t alone in this consistent duplication of functionality. Facebook does exactly the same thing with four separate messaging apps. There’s WhatsApp, then Facebook Messenger, Instagram and Slingshot. Each serves a slightly different function, but ostensibly they’re all messaging apps.
With the next version of Android “Lollipop” Google has the opportunity to remove this confusing duplication of default apps, but despite its seeming willingness to create a more uniform experience with its new “Material Design” template, duplicate apps are still being spawned left and right.
Apple’s locked-down approach isn’t the right way either, but at least Apple doesn’t create multiple default apps that do the same thing. Choice on Android is a very good thing, but Google should let users actually choose to install other apps rather than confusing the issue out of the box.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010