Future Tense

The Hangouts iOS Update Is a Major Quality of Life Improvement

Other than looking more like an app designed specifically for iOS 7, the aesthetic changes to the iOS Hangouts app aren’t that major. The difference is the security of knowing that the app will actually work.

Screencaps by Lily Hay Newman and Rachel Witkin.

Almost 10 months after its original release in May 2013, the iOS Hangouts app is finally good. Google released an update last Thursday that adds new features, but also just makes the app generally reliable and pleasant to use. I spent the weekend happily chatting with friends on my phone and I never felt like I wanted to throw the device out a window. That’s progress!

In October the iOS Hangouts app got Google Voice integration and voice calling, but that didn’t change how frustrating it was for basic chat functions. Chats wouldn’t update, messages wouldn’t send, there were weird lags, and sometimes things got out of sync. The app wasn’t impossible to use and generally worked all right, but there was just this underlying feeling of unease, or a sense that something might go wrong. That’s not a vibe users should get, especially when the company releasing the app has the resources Google does.

But the update solidifies everything. The chats sync quickly and easily. There’s no delay. And there are new features like a redesign for iOS 7, better iPad optimization, location sharing (a nice feature from the Android app that lets you send a Google Map of your location to a Hangout), 10-second video messages that you can even send to someone who is offline, and animated stickers. Because why the heck not?

From Google’s perspective, it’s pretty important that Hangouts reach its baseline potential for all users. During the transition from Gchat to Hangouts, some people were mad. As David Gewirtz wrote on ZDNet during the mid-May transition, “Let me be clear: I use Google Chat for work. I talk to many of my colleagues about work-related activities. … I don’t hang out.”

But the unrest didn’t only stem from the change of attitude underlying Hangouts. It came from the fact that the Hangouts rollout meant big changes to how a ubiquitous service was used everyday. And with the iOS app acting like a distracted toddler, some people may have defected or taken awhile to get used to the new situation.

Now with Facebook’s aquisition of WhatsApp, Google wants to bring everyone back and show that Hangouts is a reliable chat service for everything. Work, social, mobile, whatever. I powered through the Gchat to Hangouts transition because the service is so central to my daily life, but I didn’t like how bumpy the ride was. Now I’m starting to feel better.