Google is running out of time to step up its messaging efforts

Google CEO Sundar Pichai

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Messaging is the new battleground among powerful tech companies.

But Google is missing in action.

Facebook, Snapchat and Microsoft are racing to build ever more powerful chat apps, based on artificial intelligence, virtual assistants and bots. Some industry insiders predict that messaging will become the next big computing platform, providing a new way for consumers to do everything from shop online to reading the news.
As Google kicks off its annual developer conference near San Francisco next week, a growing number of users, software developers and analysts think Google needs to get on the ball and make some messaging-based announcements. The company's Hangouts chat app was an early success when it was introduced years ago, but appears to have languished recently.

Here's why Google can't afford to ignore the messaging threat:

Why chat matters for Google

Everyone's talking about how chat is the next big thing.

Huge tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft as well as startups like Slack and Viv believe we're hurtling towards a future where you will connect to a bunch of different services through a simple, conversational interface.

Order flowers through a Facebook Messenger bot or plan a whole night out by texting with a digital assistant. The idea is that people will love this kind of interaction because it eliminates the need for downloading many apps, using awkward search queries, or navigating through different web pages. But it existentially threatens Google's search business. If you're getting your information and making your mobile purchases by chatting with artificial intelligence powered bots, you're not going to be seeing Google's search ads.

"Once this new world order is in place, you will quickly forget how Google worked -phrase based search and 10 links will become the things of the past," entrepreneur Alex Iskold prophetically wrote early last year. "You will quickly get used to, and will love, the human way to search. Via a text message."

Although Google has long focused on artificial intelligence and natural language interpretation, it doesn't currently offer any platform for integrating chatbots.

"If you wanted to build a bot, how could you do that with Google? I'm hoping to see that next week," analyst Patrick Moorehead of Moor Insights and Strategy says.

One natural way to integrate bots would be through a messaging app, such as Facebook Messenger or Kik. The Wall Street Journal reported last December that Google plans to release a smarter, bot-focused messenger app, but it's unclear whether it would build that functionality into Hangouts or a separate app.

"Google does have Hangouts, but the experience there is starting to feel a bit dated," Forrester analyst Michael Facemire tells Business Insider. "As messaging platforms (and the bots that run on them) become more and more important to the mobile experience, it would be strange for Google to continue to stay stagnant there."

It's not clear how big of a role messaging will have at Google's IO conference, which takes place near the company's Mountain View, California headquarters Wednesday through Friday. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has repeatedly hinted that Google is focused on moving to an "AI-first" world, which could potentially fit in well with a chat-based framework.

Hangouts needs a revamp

Google's main operating-system agnostic app is Hangouts, the product that emerged after it unified several existing chat apps in 2013. It also has its Android-only SMS app, Messenger and just released a new keyboard for iPhones, which isn't a chat app per say, but does bring the Google search experience into Apple's iMessage. But unfortunately, the main Hangouts experience hasn't gotten as many updates or new features as its users would like.

The annoyance is particularly tangible in a recent chat thread about a new, simplified desktop view for Hangouts.

"All other messaging apps (Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, even Telegram) have eaten Google's lunch, while Hangouts has lagged behind, both in terms of stability, as well as features," user Manish Sahai writes to a Googler - engineer Sage LaTorra - who's on the thread. "I remember every single time one of your team members comes back saying 'Just wait and see the features we are working on!' and nothing at all comes up."

Whether the change Sahai and other users are hoping for actually happens next week, LaTorra chimed in multiple times to hint that it's coming soon:

"I think we may yet be able to make Hangouts fit into your dreams a little more."