Hangouts, iMessage and the Trouble with Overriding SMS

Will Android's Hangouts app replace SMS? Hopefully not.

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Two years after Apple set out to bury the text message with its iMessage service, Google is reportedly about to launch something similar for Android devices.

A report by Android Police claims that Google’s Hangouts app, which replaced Google Chat earlier this year, will soon be able to send and receive standard text messages. There’s a chance that Hangouts could even replace Android’s stock Messaging app, overriding SMS when possible.

It makes sense for Android to have its own iMessage competitor. People like iMessage because it allows them to chat with friends and family without being tied to their phones–iMessage works on iPads and Macs as well–and it can save money if you’re on a limited messaging plan. The magic of iMessage is its ability to detect when two iOS users are communicating, and to switch away from standard text messages without any effort by the user.

But in its attempt to be seamless, iMessage has its downsides. Let’s say you switch from an iPhone to an Android phone, but still use an iPad or Mac. Text messages from other iPhone users won’t show up on your Android phone unless you disable iMessages on all your other Apple devices. If you don’t have access to your old iPhone or iPad–say, you traded it in to your wireless carrier or sold it on eBay–you must go to Apple’s website and unregister the product. It’s not a terribly painful process, but how many non-techie users even realize it’s necessary?

Even if you’ve never owned an iPhone, there’s a chance iMessage can get in the way. Check out Mashable’s recent story about a Verizon customer who ended up with a former iPhone user’s recycled phone number. The previous user never unregistered his iPhone, so iMessage was intercepting the new user’s text messages, even though she only ever used Android devices. The only solution was to get a new phone number.

One other issue comes to mind: These services place another server between you and the person you’re talking to. With iMessage, outages can happen, and while the service is supposed to fall back on regular text messages when there’s a problem, users have complained that the fallback doesn’t always work properly.

If Google is planning an Android equivalent to iMessage, users could run into the same problems. From Android Police’s report, it looks like Google will at least offer a way to turn SMS on and off within Hangouts, so users can just avoid the potential headaches. Apple’s iMessage also offers an on/off switch. But that defeats the purpose of having the service in the first place.

Perhaps there’s room for a different approach. Consider this: If services like iMessage are meant to disrupt the standard text message, it’s already happened. Sprint and T-Mobile both include unlimited messaging with their standard plans, and unlimited messages are included with shared data plans on AT&T and Verizon. The days of exorbitant per-message revenues are ending, as carriers look to tiered data plans for more money.

The right approach, then, is one that embraces the reliability of SMS but adds the cross-platform support of a service like iMessage. Programs like MightyText and Google’s own Motorola Connect already do this by relaying standard text messages instead of overriding them with something else. As an Android user who’s no longer paying for every individual text message, I’d be happier if that service was baked right into the operating system, and into the Hangouts sidebar in Gmail. Whether or not that’s what Google has in mind, we’ll have to see.