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The thought struck me when I was reading The Verge’s review of the Nexus 5. Joshua Topolsky complained about the current state of Hangouts, Google’s end-all be-all solution to messaging.

“Unlike iMessage, which combines everything into one stream whether you’re using SMS or not, Hangouts bifurcates those conversations, making communication actually more confusing and harder to navigate,” Topolsky wrote. “How can this be so hard?”

That got me thinking about Google’s approach to messaging. Why is Hangouts so incomplete?

What We Want

Let’s define complete first. In my mind, the ideal form of Google Hangouts would look something like iMessage, but on multiple platforms and even more seamless.

Let’s say someone sends you a text message. Hangouts should be smart enough to intercept that message, turn it into a hangout, and use whatever algorithms Google already uses to guess where to send the notification to pass you the message.

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The ideal form of implementation could be at the carrier level, although I seriously doubt any carrier would willingly assist Google cut into their texting profits. In that case you could run a simple background service on an Android phone that turns texts into Hangouts messages.

Once you respond to a Hangouts message, Google should deliver your text to your intended recipient as a Hangouts message if possible, and fall back to SMS if needed. Think iMessage.

This solution would allow texting and chat from multiple different platforms and a much more seamless experience for the user. Imagine having an Android phone and responding to texts on your iPad through Hangouts.

Of course, these conversations would be seamlessly integrated in with regular Hangouts conversations. There should be no separate threads for SMS chats – maybe a “Sent via SMS” tag at most.

Why Google Won’t Do That

That’s the ideal. In our theoretical perfect world, Google would bend over backwards accommodate SMS messaging to make the most painless experience possible.

However, Mountain View doesn’t want SMS to be painless. It wants you to use Google+, to commit yourself and your friends to its own social network.

That’s why it keeps the best, most integrated experience reserved for Google+ users. Think about it. If SMS messaging within Hangouts was totally easy, what motivation would users have to start using Hangouts regularly?

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This is why Google didn’t include SMS integration in Hangouts 1.0. This is why you can’t get SMS notifications in desktop Hangouts (though that would be amazing).

Google capitulated slightly on messaging when it added SMS support to Hangouts. Perhaps it’ll continue to add features in the future and further integrate SMS into a more cohesive messaging experience.

However, it’s in no hurry to do so. Why bother? The longer they take to add improved SMS support, the more time they’ll have to push people toward using G+.

Final Thoughts

To be clear, I’m not vilifying Google. It’s acting in its own self-interest, hardly a criminal act or even a surprise.

But we should be clear about why Hangouts is the way it is. Topolsky is right. Getting unified messaging isn’t that hard. Google just doesn’t want to fix it in a hurry.