In the first four months of 2017, Google has spent a lot of effort on its messaging apps. Google Voice received its first update in several years. A desktop version of Allo was teased on Twitter. Messenger became Android Messages and will now be the texting app on most new phones. And Hangouts lost its ability to send SMS messages to focus on business users.
If it seems confusing, it’s because it is. Hangouts was once supposed to be the answer to iMessage, but now it’s been split into two apps with an enterprise bent. Allo was also supposed to be Android’s version of Apple Messages, but we’re still waiting for it to get proper SMS/RCS support. And now there’s literally an app called Android Messages, but it still doesn’t let us access messages that were sent to another device.
Quite frankly, I’m tired of waiting for Google to figure it all out. There may be a method to its messaging madness, but it’s lost on me. So until Google offers multi-platform syncing for SMS messages in either Android Messages or Allo, I’ve decided to swear off the lot of them. And I’ve never been happier.
Sync or swim
Stickers and bots are fun and all, but all I really want is for Android Messages to sync with my Google account so I can log in and see all of my conversations when I change phones, or send texts from a laptop or tablet. And I’m not alone. Developer Luke Klinker (of EvolveSMS fame) was so frustrated with Google’s messaging that he developed Pulse, an app that does that and only that. And ever since I downloaded it a few weeks ago, Android Messages has been collecting dust.
“My goal for Pulse was to create something cleaner, with the right amount of customization, that worked across all your devices, and allowed you to talk to anyone,” Klinker told me in an interview. “None of Google’s messaging apps has accomplished that.”
Like the rest of us, Klinker had specific issues with each of Google’s messaging apps. Hangouts wasn’t “fast or polished” enough. Allo “didn’t have the cross device functionality” he wanted. And Android Messages was missing a crucial web component. So he set out to build an app that eliminated those barriers, with an elegant, speedy interface that let you pick up your conversations on whatever device you were closest to, be it a laptop, tablet, or a brand new phone.
“For the majority of people, SMS is universal, easy, and low cost,” he said. “Anyone with a phone has it. Apple understands that, by building it into iMessage, and Pulse embraces that.”
Short and simple
You won’t find the whimsy of Apple Messages or even Allo in Pulse, but that’s not the point. It’s a specific solution to a specific problem, and what’s most striking about it its drop-dead simplicity, both visually and conceptually. It looks better than Android Messages, and once you register with your main phone, every other device naturally falls into place. In fact, I just received a text from my wife, and I responded to it on my Mac.
Even if one of your other devices operates under a different SIM card like several of mine do, it will let you send messages from a main number just as though you were using your other phone. It’s so simple and smooth, it really underscores Android Messages’ lack of basic syncing. Pulse is end-to-end encrypted between your phone and its servers, but there's no way your SMS or MMS messages can be encrypted to the person you're sending them to. So the company can't see (or sell) your data, but your phone company could still snoop on you if it wanted to.
There’s a relatively small fee attached ($0.99 per month, $1.99 for three months, $5.99 per year, or $10.99 for a lifetime subscription), but I happily forked over the cash. For the first time since I switched to Android, I feel like my messages are in sync.
But Klinker also understands Google’s troubles, perhaps better than any of us. “Depending on the infrastructure, feature-set, and the user-base, sometimes it is just better to build a separate service—as Google did with Allo as opposed to improving Hangouts,” he said. “You don’t want to alienate your current users with a massive UI or feature-set change, but you also don’t want to be held back by the infrastructure. Creating a new infrastructure for Allo allowed them to reshape the platform, improve performance, add new features, and learn from their past mistakes.”
Even with so many attempts, none of Google’s messaging apps have been able to deliver a consistent experience. And while Pulse works for me, most people will be still be jumping through hoops with the apps pre-installed on our phones.
“The question of why Google can’t make something on the same level as iMessage is an interesting one,” Klinker said. “I think that that is what Hangouts was supposed to be, but it just didn’t work the way they wanted it to, and it wasn’t up to the quality standards that most people have become accustomed to, so they went a different direction by splitting out Allo, Duo, and Android Messages.”
Pulse’s syncing method is perhaps inelegant compared to the Google account-based system we’re all hoping for. For one, you need to set a main phone that the others will follow, and for another, if you forget your password, you’ll need to delete your account and start over. But if nothing else, Pulse proves that different manufacturers and carriers don’t need to be a barrier to basic syncing.
Trial and error
But the road ahead is paved with just as many questions. Will Google focus its efforts on making Android Messages the messaging app to rule them all? Will Allo continue to be the fun alternative to SMS? And will any major carriers other than Sprint sign on to support universal RCS? Klinker’s not so sure.
“Google has so much talent on their teams, and they have made some amazing things for messaging, but in my opinion, they are wasting a lot of time, focusing on platforms that only a subset of users even know about and understand. I think they will continue to struggle, until they can reach the entire user-base with their solutions.”
But still, he’s hopeful that Google can figure it all out, and that’s not just because his brother is an employee.
“Google has demonstrated that communication and messaging is important to them, by releasing so many different apps with different features and styles. So I wouldn’t say that it isn’t a priority, I just think they haven’t decided the end-goal for their messaging programs. It seems like they want to continue to experiment to see what people like best.”
And until Google can figure it out, I’m happy to stick with Pulse.
This story, "I dumped all of Google's messaging apps for Pulse. Here's how (and why) I did it" was originally published by Greenbot.