Google is feeling the heat over its decision to build its new Hangouts IM and audio/video chat product with proprietary technology that doesn't support server federation via the XMPP industry standard, but the company is defending its move.
Specifically, Google maintains that XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) industry support is weak, which dilutes its purpose as a common protocol, and that its technology hasn't kept up with the times.
This week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation took Google to task over this issue, saying that the move is bad for users from the standpoints of interoperability and privacy.
If there were support for XMPP server federation, Google users would be able to chat with people on other IM services, or with those who host their own chat servers.
"This kind of decentralization is a good thing: it decreases lock-in to any particular service, which in turn lets the services compete on important factors like quality, uptime, or respect for user privacy," wrote EFF activist Parker Higgins in a blog post.
With Hangouts, the IM/chat sessions will only happen on Google servers, and it won't be possible for Hangouts users to communicate across networks with people on services that support XMPP federation.
Google defends decision
Asked for comment, a Google spokesperson said via email that Google had good reasons to go down the path it chose for Hangouts.
"Over the past several years, we've worked to bring the world an open messaging system, but no company has been willing to join our efforts," she wrote, referring to Google Talk, launched in 2005 and to be replaced by the new Hangouts.
Talk gained support for XMPP federation in early 2006, but Google has been disappointed that other major IM providers haven't followed suit.
"After seven years, it's evident that the rest of the industry is not moving to embrace this open system. If at some point in the future, the industry shows interest, we would then be open to discussions about developing an interface that's designed for modern needs," she wrote.
Requests for comment sent to Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook regarding existing or planned XMPP support in their respective IM services weren't immediately answered.
In addition, Google also determined that the "openness" of Talk yielded bad user experiences, such as making the service vulnerable to spam attacks, and also prevented Google from having a product that supported the breadth of communication that Hangouts provides, according to the spokesperson.
"When XMPP was designed, smartphones and social networks didn't exist. Yet both trends essentially transformed communication but the standard remains unchanged. For example, mobile has several requirements around bandwidth and battery that are simply not part of the standard. And audio and video integration are not well defined," she said.
Hangouts takes the helm
Google promoted Hangouts at its I/O developer conference last week, and presented it as the future main service for chats, audio calls and video meetings across all Google services and devices. It will replace Google Chat, Google Talk, and Google Plus Messenger.
"Yes, Hangouts will be the single, unified messaging service for Google," the spokesperson reiterated via email.
The XMPP Standards Foundation didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, but its executive director Peter Saint-Andre, a technical leader at Cisco, engaged in Twitter discussions about the issue during I/O, saying at one point: "Google can stop supporting XMPP, but it's impossible for them to kill it. That's the beauty of distributed technologies!"
Meanwhile, the EFF is encouraging Google to make its Hangouts protocol public and interoperable. "Releasing the specifications for Google Hangouts would be a good first step. Releasing free/open source clients and servers should follow," Higgins wrote.