Wanna Hangout? Can We Do UC There?

27 May 2014

Depending on your age, you'll think I'm like, totally being clever with this title, or that I actually talk this way all the time. Well, I don't speak as if every statement was a question, and I only say like or awesome if I really mean it. The Grand Canyon is awesome - showing up for work on time is, well, being on time - not being awesome.

Before I lose you completely, I've just said everything you need to know about Google Hangouts and whether it has a place in your plans for UC. Whether you've used it or not, Google Hangouts is getting on the radar as a collaboration tool for business, and before making any rash decisions, I'd like you to consider a couple of points of view.

First off, we all use Google in our personal lives, and in the UC space, we're familiar with how some of their applications have business value, but primarily as standalone add-ons to other things. Google may not call it UC, but they certainly want businesses to use their applications in a more integrated fashion, and Hangouts is one vehicle for doing this.

So, who's driving the UC bus?

I have often written about how the definition of UC is a moving target, and why this has been a holdback for driving adoption. The vendors have a clear idea of UC's business value, but they've had mixed success articulating that in a way that resonates with decision-makers. As a result, the marketplace has had as much of a role in defining UC as the UC vendors.

This dynamic creates opportunity for outsiders to enter and define the space in a whole new way that finally takes hold of the market. Apple is the ultimate example of a consumer company reinventing the business mobility space around their products, and with Hangouts, Google could be seen as trying to do the same thing with collaboration. Along with Google there are other, much smaller collaboration entrants, such as Slack, Thinking Phones, Dropbox, Imo, Uber, Glip, and Vorex. Being cloud-based and mobile-centric, they are also outsiders who want to redefine the collaboration space.

What we call UC they call collaboration, and if that's what the market wants, well, the UC vendors have a big problem on their hands. While Hangouts is very limited relative to the UC solutions we're familiar with, it will be appealing to certain segments of the business market. As such, you need to consider the pros and cons - not just for choosing to use Hangouts, but also for choosing not to use more full-fledged UC offerings.

What's not to like with Hangouts

This brings us back to the top of the article and why this is largely a generational issue. Millennials - for lack of a better term - are digital natives and Google is a core part of how they relate to the Internet. They will find the Hangouts experience totally intuitive, whereas their older co-workers will either be lost or frustrated by the limitations.

These can be very different worlds, but time is on the side of Millennials as their numbers continue to grow. With that said, digital immigrants are also tech-savvy, but they are not inhabitants of the digital world built and dominated by companies like Google and Facebook.

Any way you look at it, Google is first and foremost a consumer company built around selling advertising, not solving communications or workflow issues in your company. Furthermore, Google Hangouts is a consumer-grade application, not a business-grade collaboration platform. To illustrate, here are a few familiar examples:

  • If you're not a Google+ user, you have to get set up first with a Google ID before joining a Hangouts session. This is a problem WebRTC is supposed to solve, but we're not there yet.
  • Once you create a group for the session, it's fixed - you can't drop anyone out. This means it won't take long to clutter up your desktop with a long list of groups you've done Hangouts with. Not only that, but you and your team members can't delete them, so there's a cumulative effect for everyone's desktop.
  • Presence states have long been very basic, so there's not much intelligence compared to what you're used to - and need in a business environment. This really limits the value of Hangouts as a collaboration tool, especially for multichannel communication. To be fair, though, Google has just updated their presence options, bringing more in line with how other IM platforms use them.
  • Hangouts is not an integrated platform for all the features you'd expect with UC. Email is a prime example, and if you need to access this during a session, you need to open up Gmail in a new tab, which really defeats the purpose of UC.
  • Lastly, Google Hangouts is a walled garden environment which can be frustrating to many organizations who want to communicate with their partners. Even the Millennial generation does not want to be incommunicado with their peers.

What's to like

Conversely, if you are a Millennial, there's a lot to like about Hangouts, and ditto for decision-makers who have a certain set of expectations in mind:

  • Not only is Hangouts free, but the video quality is widely-considered superior to other Web-based platforms. This combination is pretty hard to beat, but only if you can get around the user experience and limited features.
  • Hangouts can handle up to 15 people, which is more than enough for most SMB needs.
  • Being a small-screen experience, Hangouts is mobility-friendly, making it very convenient and accessible, especially for Millennials, who pretty much live on these devices.
  • Sessions can be either public or private, where Hangouts can be streamed to YouTube live, as well as saved there for replays later on.

In short, Hangouts is more social by nature ("Hangouts" sure doesn't sound very business-like - more like a casual drop-in chat), whereas most UC offerings are strictly business. Clearly, Hangouts won't have much appeal to enterprises, especially since the user experience isn't very intuitive. Not only is this a barrier to adoption, but since Google doesn't offer much in the way of customer support, the help desk role will fall to IT, burdening them with a lot of hand-holding they really shouldn't have to do.

The social aspect of Hangouts (especially with tie-ins to YouTube) - will be intuitive and appealing to Millennials. Their sensibilities about what constitutes collaboration will be different, and this model runs counter to where the major UC players are coming from. The latter comes out of the telephony world, which is voice and phone-centric. Google represents more of what Millennials relate to - Web-based, XaaS, video-based, multichannel, mobile-friendly, informal, etc. A desk phone is pretty much the last thing a Hangouts user will use during a collaboration session.

These are very different paradigms, and I'm not here to say that one is better than the other. You can collaborate very effectively with Hangouts, but you also have to live with a lot of limitations. Of course, you can have both types of solutions, but it's hard to see where Hangouts could be your sole platform for UC.

How do you know if Hangouts is for you?

Bigger picture, Google is impossible to ignore, so you can't dismiss Hangouts entirely. As with Apple, they know how to be disruptive in new spaces, and I'm sure this is just the beginning of their push into the collaboration space. In fact, they've already done the hard part by getting the video experience right.

Conversely, you should also consider that Google doesn't need to make money with Hangouts, and can afford to push into the business market if not just to be disruptive and put pricing pressure on everyone else. This also means that Google can chose to exit this market without notice, leaving business users high and dry. Not all their ventures have been successful, and they have a history of behaving like this, with relevant examples being Google Wave and Buzz.

In fact, there has just been a shakeup with Google+, with their Hangouts team moving from the Social unit to the Android umbrella. This could be a strong hint that Hangouts will now be focused on mobile devices instead of the desktop, which could heavily undermine its value to businesses.

Future plans aside for Google+, you need to look at the broader range of video offerings that could be a proxy for Hangouts. Other free video options won't likely get much business traction, mainly because the quality isn't as good, along with limited integration with other applications. Alternately, if you're willing to pay for the likes of LifeSize, Vidyo, Blue Jeans or Fuze, you'll get a very good experience, but without the other Google pieces Hangouts can be attached to. If a great video solution is what you want - perhaps even for the conferencing room - these are probably the way to go, but we're talking about the broader UC environment here.

Since Hangouts is primarily PC-based, this takes us up-market now to the territory occupied by WebEx and Office 365. The stakes get a lot higher here, so if your real focus is UCaaS, Hangouts will definitely come up short, especially among enterprises. There's just too much invested in the status quo to make a left-hand turn like this - unless everyone in your orbit is on Google+, but even then Hangouts just won't be intuitive enough for mainstream end users to embrace.

For the younger generation, however, the story could be very different. For tech-savvy SMBs running on a shoestring, Hangouts will have a lot of appeal, especially since they're probably using it already in their personal lives. They will totally get it with Hangouts, and for them, the social aspects around Google applications will create a different paradigm for what it means to collaborate.

Since the definition of UC isn't written in stone, who's to say this won't be the way forward? If not the way forward, perhaps a way forward, and given how fragmented the UC market is, there's plenty of room for Google Hangouts and others who want to challenge the incumbent UC vendors.


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