Monday, December 23, 2013

Google Hangouts vs. Apple's iMessage

I’ve been thinking about moving from iMessage to Hangouts as my go-to messaging app and platform. There are good points and bad points for each but ultimately I believe Hangouts suits me the best. I spend far too much time weighing my options in the consumer electronic space and as any good geek knows, the longer the wait, the more agonizing the choice. My biggest concerns were balancing privacy, flexibility and portability, in that order. As I go into the details of each service, I’ll expand on what I mean by those three priorities in more details.


I like iMessage and have been a big proponent of using it with others since iOS 5. Back then I was rocking Android on a Motorola Atrix (my second Android phone after the Nexus One) but also had a 4th Gen. iPod Touch, my first iOS device. I have been living in South Korea since 2010 but didn’t get my first iPhone until 2012. I bought the iPhone 4 and, later on, the iPhone 5 in 2013. In Korea, the most common over-the-top messaging service is the cross-platform KakaoTalk and since iPhone penetration in South Korea represents a meager 14%, iMessage is not commonly used. However, my wife and friends, fellow EFL teachers, mostly have iPhones, as well as friends and family back in the States. iMessage was a Godsend for keeping in touch with my family in particular as international texting charges rack up quickly.
Privacy is important to me. Apple promises end-to-end encryption though this is debatable. While the NSA reading my texts doesn’t concern me, I don’t want my messages available to anyone with a stolen encryption key. In typical and frustrating Apple fashion, iMessage documentation has never been straight forward about the details about encryption, encryption keys being stored in iCloud backups, etc. All said and done, without hacker access, iMessages are stored and sent in an encrypted fashion, which is more than what any of the other major texting platforms can say.
As far as flexibility, iMessage is great…as long as your contacts are using something within the Apple ecosystem. Is this a limitation? Yes and no. As it happens, something like 70% of the folks I communicate with regularly have an iPhone. My dad has an iPhone and my mom and iPad and its easy enough for them to send and receive texts and the occasional picture. I don’t know if I could throw a stick in their spokes and ask them to use anything other that iMessage, which works transparently within the native Messages app. Great technology should be invisible to the user and iMessage almost gets away with that.
iMessage really falls short in term of flexibility, or at least what I would consider flexibility. It must be used on an Apple device and follows the desktop paradigm (as opposed to cloud) of local storage, local content, download and be done with it. This juxtaposes strongly with Google’s “server truth” paradigm wherein user data lives on the servers and clients on desktops and mobile devices essentially reflect that truth. Any data deleted from the server is then deleted everywhere. When I receive an iMessage, I get that message on my phone, iPad and laptop and if I want to delete anything, I have to go around to each device and delete it. There are also problems with iMessages on OS X with messages showing up out of order or not even showing up at all. It’s also very hard to export iMessages for purposes of both text and photo backup and making conversation histories searchable. The only way I know of is outlined here.
The last straw came after I upgraded to iOS 7 and I saw that my messages were taking up over 1 GB of my 16 GB iPhone, over 6% of the total storage! That’s the downside of the desktop, local storage model. I had been playing around with Hangouts on my iPhone since Google released the iOS version just after Google I/O 2013.


Hangouts is a relative newcomer to the messaging space occupied by iMessage, WhatsApp, KakaoTalk and Line. In this editorial, I will be giving it the benefit of the doubt and counting on future updates, especially on the desktop, to make it what I know it can be. In general, I like the cloud model, the “server truth” wherein the conversation is stored in the cloud, not taking up local storage. All the pictures sent between Hangouts users are stored in a private Google+ album visible  only to those in the conversation, are downloadable. The entire conversation history is searchable and exportable in GMail.
I recognize that when a product is free, the user is the product and that absolutely negates any rights to privacy from the service provider. Indeed, I acknowledge that Google’s algorithms have unfettered access to my message history, most likely so they can more effectively advertise to me. That said, my personal preferences for privacy is such that encrypting the data in transit far outweighs the encryption of the data in-storage. My Hangouts conversations are secured behind a password and 2-factor authentication with nothing but Google’s digital spiders crawling over the data. I would be far more concerned if any one, for any reason, were syphoning off my messages. After seeing this infograph from the EFF (see below) it seems to me that Apple’s claim to encryption with assurances of “just trust us” doesn’t inspire trust. Sometimes Apple’s too damn coy for it’s own good. Looking at that graph, who’s committed to my privacy, really? Google, hands down. As a side note, Apple’s only checkmark is specified as “iCloud”; I don’t even know what that means or what it entails. Typical Apple. What I see is Google’s commitment to transparency and privacy and that goes a long way for me.

Hangouts on the phone, well, stinks. It’s come a long way in the last few months but it’s still (as I am writing this) sporting iOS 6 design language and it’s ugly. Not only that but it sometimes doesn’t autoscroll as new messages come in. One of my biggest annoyances is that the text input box doesn’t expand as you type, leaving the user to rely on scrolling inside the tiny window to read the message in its entirety before sending it. Favorite feature by far, especially as an expat living abroad, is the integration of Google Voice calls in and out of the service. I can now call my parents and they can call me and I don’t have to set up some VoIP jujitsu with a SIPGate and Skype and all that other nonsense I was doing for years before.
On OS X, hangouts looks and feels like a web interface and is missing a drag-and-drop feature for sharing pictures. As a matter of fact, hangouts relies on a Google Drive mechanism for adding pictures to the chat, which sucks because Google Drive specifically is blocked by the network admin of our school district. Savage. It doesn’t have the fit and finish of a native messaging client but it’s manageable. I don’t like that I have to keep Chrome open to use it, either.
Lastly, Hangouts excels as a webpage-based user interface. This is where users will see true hardware agnosticism; I can log in to my GMail using any computer in the world and my chats, chat histories, all the shared pictures, links, etc. all all there for me, in the right order, searchable and exportable.


As usual, I’m still waiting for Google to update the Hangouts app for iOS before waving the checkered flag to call it the victor but my wife and I have been using Hangouts exclusively for almost two weeks now and the frustrations are starting to dissipate (though I’m still enraged by the continued lack of the iOS 7 keyboard! What are we? Animals!?). I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Hangouts will get updated soon. As soon as the Google Glass companion app went live on the App Store last week, Google has been adding iOS 7 polish to its apps one by way, succinctly and quickly though now that iTunes connect is closed until December 27th, we may just have to wait a little bit longer. And really, Hangouts is just a means to communicate. I know more people with Google accounts than iPhones and ubiquity is the secret sauce to strong adoption. I say that using Hangouts is one less barrier in the pursuit of free, private(ish) and unfettered communication.