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Google's Hangouts still has a future: as an enterprise communication app

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Google is giving Hangouts the business

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Today, Google launched Duo, its new mobile-only video chat app. But that's only half of Google’s new messaging equation. The other half is Allo, its AI-enhanced texting app. Allo isn't available yet, even though Duo is a "companion app" to it. Google's VP for communications Nick Fox says that the two apps are being developed on different timelines and that it will be released in time.

Thing is, Google already has a messaging solution that handles both text and video chat — it's called Hangouts, and it's become the butt of many a joke about how moribund it has become. After launching with a lot of high-minded promises and ideas about the future of mobile communication, meaningful product development seems to have stalled out. Even so, Allo and Duo are not replacing Hangouts, which makes you wonder: what's next for Hangouts?

The answer is simple: business.

That's what Fox told me before diving into the product briefing for Duo. Google, he says, places its messaging goals into three buckets. And understanding them goes a long ways towards making sense of Google's "try everything" messaging strategy.

The first bucket is the one we're most familiar with: consumer services. This is squarely where Allo and Duo will sit. They're focused on end users, designed with simplicity in mind, and there's an attempt to add some "humanness" to them, in Fox's terms.

The second bucket: carrier services. This is where Google does a few different things. It makes the messaging app for SMS and RCS (Rich Text Services, the next-gen SMS), provides RCS services to carriers with its recently-acquired Jibe software, and finally makes the phone app. "We don't think of the Phone app as a Google product as much as we think of it as a manifestation — hopefully a great manifestation — of the carrier's phone [...] calling service," says Fox. "Same thing with the SMS/RCS app," he adds.

That leaves the third bucket, the enterprise. And Fox says that's "where Hangouts will increasingly focus over time." Though he insists that Google "won't abandon consumer users in Hangouts, obviously," he does feel that apps do better with focus. That's a big reason why Duo is so heavily focused on phones, and a parallel focus on big business will apparently apply to Hangouts.

"In some ways it's a return to the roots of Hangouts," says Fox, "where it was more of a desktop legacy. It's used pretty heavily in enterprises, small business, [and] large group collaborations." Hangout will remain for those purposes, and where it's going next is into Google’s Office competitor. Fox says that "it will increasingly be more integrated with the Google Apps suite." It's obviously closely tied to Gmail already, but we can expect "deep integrations" with other Google apps like "Calendar, Docs, [and] Spreadsheets."

In fact, Hangouts is already distancing itself from the consumer space. The first step was decoupling it from Google Plus. And only yesterday, Google killed off most community aspects of Hangouts on Air, which let users broadcast directly from a Hangout video chat.

One of the reasons for this refocusing, according to Fox, is that that Google no longer wants to try to "do everything in one app," but instead make each of its app more focused on its target use case. "We do think it's important when we think about these apps to have a target use case or target persona in mind," he says.

Shifting Hangouts from the consumer to the enterprise space seems like a smart idea, but it also presents an entirely different set of competitors. In the near future, if Google pulls this move off, we'll be comparing Hangouts to the likes of Slack, Skype, Yammer, and Convo instead of comparing it to Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. But even though that will be a different comparison, it will be just as unflattering — only this time for different reasons.

That's not to say that Google can't turn Hangouts into a good work collaboration tool. But doing that takes innovation, will, and commitment — precisely the things that Hangouts has lacked since it launched.

Google's three-bucket messaging strategy tells a great story to somebody trying to set up business units. To actual users, the ones who would like something as seamlessly multi-platform as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and iMessage, it tells a different story: we haven't figured out this whole social communication thing just yet.

It's hard not to look at all of it and wonder what would have happened if the boondoggle known as Google+ hadn't distracted so much of the company. We’ll never know the answer to that question. What we do know is that the competition in the messaging space has never been stronger, so Google can’t afford to be distracted anymore.

Correction 9:20am ET: A previous version of this article stated that Jive was a recent Google acquisition. That was incorrect. Jibe was the recently acquired company. We regret the error, and have updated the piece accordingly.