The free video chats worked for everything from business meetings to personal interaction and even recording webcasts. It also offered messaging capability and the option to have audio-only calls. It was a good idea that could have been a category changer, disrupting Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Skype and Lync (which has now been integrated into Skype for Business) as well as Facebook's (NASDAQ:FB) Messenger and WhatsApp platforms.
Poor execution, however, held Hangouts back. They were difficult to access and had a heavy learning curve, limiting their usefulness.
But Google has made some changes and revamped the dedicated Hangouts homepage. This follows the release earlier this month of a simplified Android app for the video/chat product.
What did Google do?
The company simplified Hangouts and stripped it down to its essence. As you can see from the screenshot below, Google has made the available choices very straightforward.
That section is at the center of the webpage, while the left hand column features a running list of your most recent interactions. The search leader has essentially made Hangouts a five-word, three-button product, removing any learning curve.
It's a leap forward in usability that makes Hangouts a sensible alternative to Skype and Skype for Business, services it closely resembles. It also arguably gives Google an edge over Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp because it offers more than just text messaging.
What was Google going for?
Google has not issued a press release or other public statement about the new Hangouts homepage, but it did issue one when it released the new Android app earlier this month. The comments make it clear that the company now understands that ease of use was key to making Hangouts viable.
The best conversations just flow: you barely have to think about what to say. With Hangouts, we want to help you stay in the moment, no matter what device you're using or how you're getting your voice across, from texting to talking to video. So we've been hard at work on big improvements to make Hangouts faster, simpler, and easier on the eyes.
Everything said there applies to both the app and the homepage. Whereas Hangouts was formerly a frustrating experience, especially for occasional users who forgot the intricacies between sessions, it's now a product that anyone with a Google log-in can use with zero training and no learning curve.
Should Microsoft and Facebook be worried?
With both Facebook messaging platforms topping 700 million users (WhatsApp has over 800 million) the company has little to fear in the short run. Still, anytime a company with Google's global reach gets it right in a market you compete in, there is at least some cause for concern.
Google has finally made Hangouts a viable alternative from an ease-of-use and functionality point of view. It does not have the user base needed to compete with Messenger and WhatsApp so far, but there's no reason it could not close the gap.
Of course, the search giant's past failures in social media and messaging suggest that Facebook would need to stumble badly for either of its well-established apps to lose ground to a newcomer -- even one owned by one of the biggest digital players.
Microsoft, on the other hand, may have more to worry about. The new Hangouts directly competes with Skype and Skype for Business and it's arguably easier to use. Google's product may not appeal to hardcore enterprise users, but it's a very easy-to-integrate solution for a quick video chat between people at multiple locations who are not regular users of such technology.
Google has built something that could skim low-end and casual users from Microsoft, which might ultimately lead to some of them thinking that Hangouts is good enough to replace Skype for Business for higher-end uses. This is a case where simple is good and simple will open doors.
The only question is whether users will sample the new Hangouts or whether Google has already burned out its goodwill in this marketplace. The new site and app deliver and could make Hangouts a force in video chats, messaging, and calls if people are willing to take another look.
Daniel Kline owns shares of Facebook and Microsoft. He found the old Hangouts and the current Skype frustrating, but loved Lync back when it was still Lync. The Motley Fool recommends Facebook, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.