Google Has a Messaging App Problem

With five messaging apps, it can be hard to choose how to chat

Google’s love of messaging apps is getting out of control. For the first time in five years, Alphabet Inc.’s search giant rolled out a major update to its Google Voice service across its web and mobile apps. Google Voice, which routes phone calls and text messages to specific phone numbers, now has a modern look and new features, like the ability to group text.

Google Voice is now a fully functional chat app—Google’s fifth such app. While these apps compete with popular messaging options from Apple Inc., Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others, they also face off in various ways against each other. The end result? Confusion.

Google Voice is built for people who juggle multiple phones, but only want to give out one number.

When starting a free Google Voice account, you pick a phone number. You can choose a new number or port over one issued by a telephone service provider. The redesigned app and website gives you a central place to send text messages, share photos or place phone calls.

In the past, the only way Google Voice users could send group texts and share photos was to log into Google’s Hangouts app with their phone number.

Despite the new features, Google Voice is still mainly about phone calls. They are free within the U.S. and Canada, and international calling starts at one cent a minute. Assuming anyone out there still picks up the phone.

Google Hangouts

Hangouts remains Google’s most popular messaging service. The reason? It is convenient and it can be used across phones and PCs.

Google Voice's major update is its first in five years.

Google Voice’s major update is its first in five years. PHOTO: ALPHABET INC.

Hangouts can be found inside Google’s widely used Gmail website. There are also Hangouts apps for Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. In any iteration, you can send text, photos and videos, and place voice and video calls by phone number or Gmail address.

Google has said it plans to make Hangouts better for business users. While businesses do use it, it faces stiff competition there from the likes of Slack and Microsoft’s Skype.

Google Allo

Allo is one of a pair of apps released last year geared to Android and iOS smartphones. A texting app like Apple’s iMessage, it also includes a special perk: the ability to chat with the Google Assistant. Google’s artificial-intelligence software scours the web for movie show times, sports scores, trivia answers and weather reports. Allo is the only way to communicate with Google Assistant via text chat, though you can talk to it with a Google Home speaker.

Aside from chatting with an AI, this app lets you send text and photo messages to friends—provided you know their number: Although so many people have Gmail accounts, Allo is tied only to phone numbers.

Google Duo

Google Duo is Allo’s sibling, also only for iPhones and Android smartphones. The app does one thing: one-to-one video chats. Like Allo, Duo is tied to phone numbers.

Messenger

And the fifth? Google’s Android-only app for SMS and MMS messaging. You can’t place a call or initiate a video chat—you just text individuals or groups. It also relies on phone numbers to work.

Even though most cell plans now include unlimited text messaging, this app feels arcane compared with the others out there, Google’s and everyone else’s.

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