Over the past couple of weeks, rumors have been swirling that Google is working on a cross-platform messaging service called Babel that will tie together all of its existing communication products, from Google Talk and Hangouts to Voice and Google+ Messenger. If the rumors are correct, it will do everything from provide a single, synced conversation list across all your devices, to turn a group discussion into a Hangout video chat with a single touch. From what we’ve heard, it sounds like iMessage on steroids, but what really stands to set it apart is platform independence — all indications are that it will be available on Android, Chrome, iOS, and inside the Gmail web client. If it does everything it's reported to, it could stand to completely change the messaging app landscape, so let's take a look at what we know so far.
Google would be pushing all of its users onto a single platform
Initially, a report surfaced on Geek.com in mid-March claiming that Google was working on unifying its myriad messaging platforms into a single service. Citing "multiple sources," the report said that Google would be pushing all of its users onto a single platform, one that let them "use the same chat window across all of Google’s products with the same features available everywhere." Originally rumored to be called "Babble," the app was said to be scheduled for an unveiling at Google I/O in May.
Since that first report we’ve seen a few leaked images, a few more details, and rumors of a billion-dollar acquisition of popular cross-platform messaging service WhatsApp. The acquisition rumors were promptly denied by WhatsApp’s Head of Business Development, but a screenshot of a reference to the service (above), posted by Google+ user Patric Dhawaan appears to check out. On top of examining the photo's metadata, Android Police also pointed to a search of the Chromium bug group that contains multiple references to the name. Adding to the pile of evidence, photos of what appear to be Babel’s Gmail and Android interfaces (below) were subsequently posted by TechRadar, showing a multitude of new blob-shaped emoticons alongside traditional emoji. Judging from the photos, the new app could also add thumbnail images to represent the participants in the conversation, a notable change from Google Talk.
Now that we're reasonably confident Babel is indeed on the way, what exactly can we expect from the service when it gets here? A purported feature list posted by Droid-Life could offer some answers, including references to notification and conversation syncing, photo attachments, and more than 800 emoji characters. There’s no mention of Google Voice, but some, including Droid-Life, have said that the service will be incorporated down the road.
A "first class" iOS experience
Last but not least, it looks like Babel will follow the likes of Google Maps and Gmail as a "first class" iOS experience. Rather than take the Apple and BlackBerry approach and tie its messaging service to its own platform, Google would instead be opting to go for maximum market penetration. The tactic has worked out in the past (Google has completely taken over many of our own iPhone homescreens), but there’s one core Apple advantage in the messaging space that Babel might not match out of the gate, and that’s integration with your existing SMS service. That could change if rumors of Google Voice integration down the road are true, but the omission would single-handedly keep Babel from becoming a pure iMessage replacement for many, regardless of whatever other niceties Babel brings to the table. At the same time, the tight integration with Google’s existing services (particularly your Gmail contacts) would almost certainly make it an attractive draw compared to other SMS replacement services like WhatsApp and Kik Messenger. Hopefully, with the big reveal rumored to be just over a month away, we won’t have to wait too much longer to see how it stacks up against the competition.