Meta and Mark Zuckerberg face a six-letter problem. Spell it out with me: T-i-k-T-o-k.
Yeah, TikTok, the short-form video app that has hoovered up a billion-plus users and become a Hot Thing in Tech, means trouble for Zuckerberg and his social networks. He admitted as much several times in a call with Wall Street analysts earlier this week about quarterly earnings, a briefing in which he sought to explain his apps’ plateauing growth—and an actual decline in Facebook’s daily users, the first such drop in the company’s 18-year history.
Zuckerberg has insisted a major part of his TikTok defense strategy is Reels, the TikTok clone—ahem, short-form video format—introduced on Instagram and Facebook and launched in August 2020.
If Zuckerberg believed in Reels’ long-term viability, he would take a real run at TikTok by pouring money into Reels and its creators. Lots and lots of money. Something approaching the kind spent by YouTube, which remains the most lucrative income source for social media celebrities. (Those creators produce content to draw in engaged users. The platforms sell ads to appear with the content—more creators, more content, more users, more potential ad revenue. It’s a virtous cycle.)
Now, here’s as good a time as any for a crash course in creator economics. For this, there’s no better guide than Hank Green, whose YouTube video on the subject recently went viral. His fame is most rooted there on YouTube, where he has nine channels run from his Montana home. His most popular channel is Crash Course (13.1 million subscribers—an enviable YouTube base), to which he posts education videos for kids about subjects like Black Americans in World War II and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Like the savviest social media publishers, Green fully understands that YouTube offers the best avenue for making money. It shares 55% of all ad revenue earned on a video with its creator. “YouTube is good at selling advertisements: It’s been around a long time, and it’s getting better every year,” Green says. On YouTube, he earns around $2 per thousand views. (In all, YouTube distributed nearly $16 billion to creators last year.)
Green sports an expansive mindset, though, and he has accounts on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook, too. TikTok doesn’t come close to paying as well as YouTube: On TikTok, Green earns pennies per every thousand views.
Meta is already beginning to offer some payouts for Reels. Over the last month, Reels has finally amassed enough of an audience for Green’s videos to accumulate 16 million views and earn around 60 cents per thousand views. Many times over TikTok’s but still not enough to get Green to divert any substantial his focus to Reels, which has never managed to replicate TikTok’s zeitgeisty place in pop culture. (Tiktok “has deeper content, something fascinating and weird,” explains Green. Reels, however, is “very surface level. None of it is deeper,” he says.) Another factor weighing on Reels: Meta’s bad reputation. “Facebook has traditionally been the company that has been kind of worst at being a good partner to creators,” he says, citing in particular Facebook’s earlier pivot to long-form video that led to the demise of several promising media startups, like Mic and Mashable.
This is where Zuckerberg could use Meta’s thick profit margin (36%, better even than Alphabet’s) and fat cash pile ($48 billion) to shell out YouTube-style cash to users posting Reels, creating an obvious enticement to prioritize Reels over TikTok. Maybe even Reels over YouTube, which has launched its own TikTok competitor, Shorts.
Now, imagine how someone like Green might get more motivated to think about Meta if Reels’ number crept up to 80 cents or a dollar per thousand views. Or $1.50. Or a YouTube-worthy $2. Or higher still: YouTube earnings can climb over $5, double even for the most popular creators.
Meta has earmarked up to a $1 billion for these checks to creators, which sounds big until you remember the amount of capital Meta has available to it. (And think about the sum YouTube disburses.) Moreover, Meta has set a timeframe for dispensing those funds, saying last July it would continue through December 2022. Setting a timetable indicates that Meta could (will likely?) turn off the financing come next Christmas.
Zuckerberg has demonstrated a willingness to plunk down Everest-size mountains of money over many years for projects he does fully believe in. The most obvious example is the metaverse, the latest Zuckerberg pivot. Meta ran up a $10.1 billion bill on it last year to develop new augmented and virtual reality software and headsets and binge hire engineers. Costs are expected to grow in 2022. And unlike Reels, metaverse spending has no semblance of a time schedule; Wall Street has been told the splurge will continue for the foreseeable future. Overall, Meta’s view on the metaverse seems to be, We’ll spend as much as possible—for as long as it takes—for this to happen.
The same freewheeled mindset doesn’t seem to appply to Reels. But Zuckerberg knows he can’t let TikTok take over the short-form video space unopposed. Meta needs to hang onto the advertising revenue generated by Instagram and Facebook until it can make the metaverse materialize. (Instagram and Facebook, for perspective, generated 98% of Meta’s $118 billion revenue last year; sales of Meta’s VR headset, the Quest 2, accounted for the remaining 2%.) And advertising dollars will increasingly move to short-form video, following users’ increased demand for this type of content over the last several years.
Reality is, Zuckerberg has already admitted he doesn’t see Reels as a long-term solution to his T-i-k-T-o-k problem. If he did, he’d spend more on it and creators like Green than what the metaverse costs him over six weeks.
NewView Capital founder Ravi Viswanathan has worked with startups as a venture capitalist for more than two decades. He’s never seen the game change more than in its most recent stretch.
He rattles off some highlights (and some low ones): the sudden lockdown of early 2020; the host of new players who split off from known firms or launched first-time funds; the increased startup interest from hedge funds and public market specialists; the record dollars flowing in and the more recent pullback. “The last two or three years have been the most extraordinary,” Viswanathan says.
In the thick of it all, Viswanathan’s firm is hoping to profit through a less-common approach. Founded in 2018, the firm looks to build positions in startups by buying out other VC firms—either a portfolio of their equity holdings, or taking some or all of an investment à la carte. And Viswanathan has two new funds, worth a combined $544 million, in new capital to do it.
NewView’s pitch is simple: With startups taking longer to go public or exit, firms with strong paper returns face pressure to return some immediate cash to their own backers. And as investors switch firms, set up their own shingle or retire, some companies find themselves orphans, part-owned by firms where their lead supporter is long gone. “The first reaction is, ‘What is this?’” Viswanathan says. “Then as you go through it, they start embracing that it’s a way to reset the clock.”
Secondary transactions—the purchase of equity shares already issued to insiders or investors—are nothing new to Silicon Valley. Taking basket positions of a bunch of a firm’s companies, however, without simply buying the entire fund, is more of a twist. Viswanathan’s proof of concept came when the longtime partner at many-billions-in-assets firm NEA splintered off with a billion dollars’ worth of its holdings across 31 companies three-plus years ago, the lion’s share of a $1.35 billion fund that also made half a dozen direct investments in startups. NewView’s holdings now include unicorns such as Forter, MessageBird and Plaid, as well as 23andMe and Duolingo, which went public in 2021, and Segment, which was acquired in 2020 for $3.2 billion.
Unlike a traditional venture firm, which operates under the assumption that it won’t return capital from positions for seven or even ten years, NewView’s appearance partway anticipates time horizons of five or six years for its investments to exit. Its primary fund represents $244 million of the new capital, intended for primary startup investments, with a $300 million opportunities fund to make follow-on investments and build positions pieced together from multiple sellers. As a registered investment advisor, NewView has no caps on how it chooses to balance its portfolio. The firm will look to invest in about eight to ten deals per year.
The challenge, of course, is to find deals that provide Viswanathan and company with a venture-like upside—but that other firms are simultaneously willing to sell. Viswanathan says he has met with about 40 other firms in the past several years. “After one conversation, we can very quickly get a sense if this is more ‘I win, you lose,’ or if it’s really a win-win,” he says.
At 137 Ventures, a growth-stage venture firm that provides founders with loans in exchange for the option to convert their debt into equity, among other tactics, founder Justin Fishner-Wolfson says that the relationship-driven nature of venture capital provides impetus for such transactions to remain aboveboard. “Smart, good investors are going to want to make sure that everyone is happy with the outcome, because that matters in terms of their ability to operate in the future,” he says.
Both lawyers and investors close to the secondary market agree with Viswanathan that the structural pressures pushing a demand for such vehicles are real. Investors now raising funds more frequently, as fast as annually, might be multimillionaires on paper, but not yet have received any profits themselves, notes Ed Zimmerman, chair of the tech group at Lowenstein Sandler and an investor in underrepresented fund managers through First Close Partners. “There’s no better time to ask your LPs to re-up than once you’ve handed them a check.”
The pace of funds raising can also strain institutional investors who face allocating more capital than anticipated to venture funds, while their public equity positions take a haircut in the recently unforgiving market for tech stocks. At Industry Ventures, founder and longtime secondaries expert Hans Swildens says he’s only recently heard of limited partners asking funds to take some profits off the table, especially as the drumbeat of IPOs of 2021 appears to have slowed so far this year.
Pricing pressures could cut both ways, however. At EquityZen, founder Phil Haslett notes that individual holders in startups are now offering shares at 10% to 30% lower than what they were asking late last year. “VC firms aren’t in a mad rush to print a trade at 30% below where they’ve seen it,” he says.
Fund formation expert John Dado at Cooley is skeptical of the liquidity crunch. He notes that some firms working with his law firm are exploring the opposite: how to build in mechanisms not to need to deliver cash for even longer periods, such as 12 or even 20 years. But Dado does see value in firms finding homes for investments no longer close to their VC firms.
That’s ultimately NewView’s hope: that not only is secondary needed in the startup ecosystem, but that, given its VC credentials, it’ll be a comfortable option. (Others, like Industry Ventures, are still bigger—“This market is so big, you barely bump into people,” Swildens says.) NewView recently brought on another partner, NextWorld Cpaital and Scale Venture Partners veteran Ben Fu, joining Viswanathan and partner David Yoo. NewView has no women partners; two of its three partner-track investment principals, however, are women, according to Viswanathan.
At fraud prevention startup Forter, valued at $3 billion, cofounder Michael Reitblat has worked with Viswanathan, first at NEA and now at NewView. He says he still calls for help on a personal, in-depth level he might not with other investors on his cap table with larger portfolios to handle, such as Bessemer Venture Partners, Sequoia and Tiger Global. He points to NewView’s team of operating experts as another source of strength.
“There’s a lot of secondary funds, but they just buy equity,” Reitblat says. “If you actually want someone with more operating knowledge and experience and time, I think Ravi has that.”
A small Nebraska company is helping law enforcement around the world spy on users of Google, Facebook and other tech giants. A secretly recorded presentation to police reveals how deeply embedded in the U.S. surveillance machine PenLink has become.
PenLink might be the most pervasive wiretapper you’ve never heard of.
The Lincoln, Nebraska-based company is often the first choice of law enforcement looking to keep tabs on the communications of criminal suspects. It’s probably best known, if it’s known at all, for its work helping convict Scott Peterson, who murdered his wife Laci and their unborn son in a case that fomented a tabloid frenzy in the early 2000s. Nowadays the company has been helping cops keep tabs on suspected wrongdoing by users of Google, Facebook and WhatsApp – whatever web tool that law enforcement requests.
With $20 million revenue every year from U.S. government customers such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and almost every other law enforcement agency in the federal directory, PenLink enjoys a steady stream of income. That doesn’t include its sales to local and state police, where it also does significant business but for which there are no available revenue figures. Forbes viewed contracts across the U.S., including towns and cities in California, Florida, Illinois, Hawaii, North Carolina and Nevada.
“PenLink is proud to support law enforcement across the U.S. and internationally in their effort to ﬁght wrongdoing,” the company said. “We do not publicly discuss how our solution is being utilized by our customers.”
Sometimes it takes a spy to get transparency from a surveillance company. Jack Poulson, founder of technology watchdog Tech Inquiry, went incognito at the National Sheriffs’ Association’s winter conference in Washington. He recorded a longtime PenLink employee showing off what the company could do for law enforcement and discussing the scale of its operations. Not only does the recording lift the lid on how deeply involved PenLink is in wiretapping operations across the U.S., it also reveals in granular detail just how tech providers such as Apple, Facebook and Google provide information to police when they’re confronted with a valid warrant or subpoena.
Scott Tuma, a 15-year PenLink veteran, told attendees at the conference that the business got off the ground in 1987 when a law enforcement agency had an abundance of call records that it needed help organizing. It was in 1998 that the company deployed its first wiretap system. “We’ve got those, generally, scattered all over the U.S. and all over the world,” Tuma said. Though he didn’t describe that tool in detail, the company calls it Lincoln.
Today, it’s social media rather than phones that’s proving to be fertile ground for PenLink and its law enforcement customers. Tuma described working with one Justice Department gang investigator in California, saying he was running as many as 50 social media “intercepts.” PenLink’s trade is in collecting and organizing that information for police as it streams in from the likes of Facebook and Google.
The PenLink rep said that tech companies can be ordered to provide near-live tracking of suspects free of charge. One downside is that the social-media feeds don’t come in real time, like phone taps. There’s a delay – 15 minutes in the case of Facebook and its offshoot, Instagram. Snapchat, however, won’t give cops data much more than four times a day, he said. In some “exigent circumstances,” however, Tuma said he’d seen companies providing intercepts in near real time.
Making matters trickier for the police, to get the intercept data from Facebook, they have to log in to a portal and download the files. If an investigator doesn’t log in every hour during an intercept, they get locked out. “This is how big of a pain in the ass Facebook is,” Tuma said. PenLink automates the process, however, so if law enforcement officers have to take a break or their working day ends, they’ll still have the intercept response when they return.
A spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s owner, said: “Meta complies with valid legal processes submitted by law enforcement and only produces requested information directly to the requesting law enforcement official, including ensuring the type of legal process used permits the disclosure of the information.”
Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, reviewed the comments made by Tuma. She raised concerns about the amount of information the government was collecting via PenLink. “The law requires police to minimize intercepted data, as well as give notice and show necessity,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine that wiretapping 50 social media accounts is regularly necessary, and I question whether the police are then going back to all the people who comment on Facebook posts or are members of groups to tell them that they’ve been eavesdropped upon.”
She suggested that Tuma’s claim that a “simple subpoena” to Facebook could yield granular information – such as when and where a photo was uploaded, or when a credit-card transaction took place on Facebook Marketplace – may be an overreach of the law.
There’s a lot of nuance involving where government actions might stray over the line, said Randy Milch, a New York University law professor and former general counsel at telecoms giant Verizon Communications. “While I’m sympathetic to the idea that the government is going to ask for more than it needs, simply saying ‘too much data must mean an overreach’ is the kind of arbitrary rule that isn’t workable,” he told Forbes. “The government doesn’t know the amount of the data it’s seeking” before the fact. Milch noted that the Stored Communications Act explicitly allows for subpoenas to collect records including names, addresses, means and source of payment, as well as information on session times and durations.
‘Google’s the best’
In his Washington talk, Tuma gushed over Google’s location-tracking data. Google “can get me within three feet of a precise location,” he said. “I cannot tell you how many cold cases I’ve helped work on where this is five, six, seven years old and people need to put [the suspect] at a hit-and-run or it was a sexual assault that took place.” If people are carrying their phones and have Gmail accounts, he said, law enforcement “can get really lucky. And it happens a lot.” Facebook, by comparison, will get a target within 60 to 90 feet, Tuma said, while Snapchat has started providing more accurate location information within 15 feet.
Snapchat didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Tuma also described having a lot of success in asking Google for search histories. “Multiple homicide investigations, I’ve seen it: ‘How to dispose of a human body,’ ‘best place to dump a body.’ Swear to God, that’s what they search for. It’s in their Google history. They cleared their browser and their cookies and things, they think it’s gone. Google’s the best.” A Google spokesperson said the company tries to balance privacy concerns with the needs of police. “As with all law enforcement requests, we have a rigorous process that is designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” the spokesperson said.
Tuma described Apple’s iCloud warrants as “phenomenal.” “If you did something bad, I bet you I could find it on that backup,” he said. (Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.) It was also possible, Tuma said, to look at WhatsApp messages, despite the platform’s assurances of tight security. Users who back up messages effectively remove the protection provided by the app’s end-to-end encryption. Tuma said he was working on a case in New York where he was sitting on “about a thousand recordings from WhatsApp.” The Facebook-owned app may not be so susceptible to near real-time interception, however, as backups can only be done as frequently as once a day. Metadata, however, showing how a WhatsApp account was used and which numbers were contacting one another and when, can be tracked with a surveillance technology known as a pen-register. PenLink provides that tool as a service.
All messages on WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted, said a company spokesperson, and it’s transparent about how it works with law enforcement. “We know that people want their messaging services to be reliable and safe – and that requires WhatsApp to have limited data,” the spokesperson said. “We carefully review, validate and respond to law enforcement requests based on applicable law and in accordance with our terms of service, and are clear about this on our website and in regular transparency reports. This work has helped us lead the industry in delivering private communications while keeping people safe, and has led to arrests in criminal cases.” They pointed to a release last year of a feature that allows users to encrypt their backups in the iCloud or Google Drive, while noting that when they respond to a law enforcement request, they don’t provide the data to any private company like PenLink, but directly to law enforcement.
Going dark or swimming in data?
In recent years, the FBI and various police agencies have raised concerns about end-to-end encryption from Google or Facebook cutting off valuable data sources. But Tuma said that Silicon Valley’s heavyweights aren’t likely to start hiding information from police because it would mean doing the same to advertisers. “I always call B.S. on it for this reason right here: Google’s ad revenue in 2020 was $182 billion,” Tuma said.
Granick of the ACLU said that such claims showed that the FBI, contrary to what the bureau claimed, wasn’t losing sight of suspects because of encrypted apps like WhatsApp. “The fact that backups and other data are not encrypted creates a treasure trove for police,” Granick said. “Far from going dark, they are swimming in data.” It’s noteworthy that Signal, an encrypted communications app that’s become hugely popular in recent years, does not have a feature that allows users to back up their data to the cloud.
Indeed, the amount of data being sent by the likes of Google and Facebook to police can be astonishing. Forbes recently reviewed a search warrant in which the police were sent 27,000 pages of information on a Facebook account of a man accused of giving illegal tours of the Grand Canyon. Tuma said he’d seen even bigger returns, the largest being around 340,000.
Though its headcount is small – less than 100 employees, according to LinkedIn – PenLink’s ability to tap a wide range of telecoms and internet businesses at scale has made the company very attractive to police over the last two decades. Over the last month alone, the DEA ordered nearly $2 million in licenses and the FBI $750,000.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Forbes obtained information on a $16.5 million PenLink contract with ICE that was signed in 2017 and continued to 2021. It details a need for the company’s suite of telecommunications analysis and intercept software applications, including what it called its PLX tool. The contract requires PenLink, at a minimum, to help wiretap a large number of providers, including AT&T, Iridium Satellite, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, Cricket, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Skype, Vonage, Virgin Mobile and what the government calls “social media and advertising websites” such as Facebook and WhatsApp.
PenLink’s work wouldn’t be possible without the compliance of tech providers, who, according to Granick, “are storing too much data for too long, and then turning too much over to investigators. Social media companies are able to filter by date, type of data, and even sender and recipient. Terabytes of data are almost never going to be responsive to probable cause, which is what the Fourth Amendment requires.”
Google took to Twitter this weekend to complain that iMessage is just too darn influential with today’s kids. The company was responding to a Wall Street Journal report detailing the lock-in and social pressure Apple’s walled garden is creating among US teens. iMessage brands texts from iPhone users with a blue background and gives them additional features, while texts from Android phones are shown in green and only have the base SMS feature set. According to the article, „Teens and college students said they dread the ostracism that comes with a green text. The social pressure is palpable, with some reporting being ostracized or singled out after switching away from iPhones.“ Google feels this is a problem.
„iMessage should not benefit from bullying,“ the official Android Twitter account wrote. „Texting should bring us together, and the solution exists. Let’s fix this as one industry.“ Google SVP Hiroshi Lockheimer chimed in, too, saying, „Apple’s iMessage lock-in is a documented strategy. Using peer pressure and bullying as a way to sell products is disingenuous for a company that has humanity and equity as a core part of its marketing. The standards exist today to fix this.“
The „solution“ Google is pushing here is RCS, or Rich Communication Services, a GSMA standard from 2008 that has slowly gained traction as an upgrade to SMS. RCS adds typing indicators, user presence, and better image sharing to carrier messaging. It is a 14-year-old carrier standard, though, so it lacks many of the features you would want from a modern messaging service, like end-to-end encryption and support for non-phone devices. Google tries to band-aid over the aging standard with its „Google Messaging“ client, but the result is a lot of clunky solutions that don’t add up to a good modern messaging service.
Since RCS replaces SMS, Google has been on a campaign to get the industry to make the upgrade. After years of protesting, the US carriers are all onboard, and there is some uptake among the international carriers, too. The biggest holdout is Apple, which only supports SMS through iMessage.
Apple hasn’t ever publicly shot down the idea of adding RCS to iMessage, but thanks to documents revealed in the Epic v. Apple case, we know the company views iMessage lock-in as a valuable weapon. Bringing RCS to iMessage and making communication easier with Android users would only help to weaken Apple’s walled garden, and the company has said it doesn’t want that.
In the US, iPhones are more popular with young adults than ever. As The Wall Street Journal notes, „Among US consumers, 40% use iPhones, but among those aged 18 to 24, more than 70% are iPhone users.“ It credits Apple’s lock-in with apps like iMessage for this success.
Reaping what you sow
Google clearly views iMessage’s popularity as a problem, and the company is hoping this public-shaming campaign will get Apple to change its mind on RCS. But Google giving other companies advice on a messaging strategy is a laughable idea since Google probably has the least credibility of any tech company when it comes to messaging services. If the company really wants to do something about iMessage, it should try competing with it.
As we recently detailed in a 25,000-word article, Google’s messaging history is one of constant product startups and shutdowns. Thanks to a lack of product focus or any kind of top-down mandate from Google’s CEO, no division is really „in charge“ of messaging. As a consequence, the company has released 13 half-hearted messaging products since iMessage launched in 2011. If Google wants to look to someone to blame for iMessage’s dominance, it should start with itself, since it has continually sabotaged and abandoned its own plans to make an iMessage competitor.
Messaging is important, and even if it isn’t directly monetizable, a dominant messaging app has real, tangible benefits for an ecosystem. The rest of the industry understood this years ago. Facebook paid $22 billion to buy WhatsApp in 2014 and took the app from 450 million users to 2 billion users. Along with Facebook Messenger, Facebook has two dominant messaging platforms today, especially internationally. Salesforce paid $27 billion for Slack in 2020, and Tencent’s WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, is pulling in 1.2 billion users and yearly revenues of $5.5 billion. Snapchat is up to a $67 billion market cap, and Telegram is getting $40 billion valuations from investors. Google keeps trying ideas in this market, but it never makes an investment that is anywhere close to the competition.
Google once had a functional competitor to iMessage called Google Hangouts. Circa 2015, Hangouts was a messaging powerhouse; in addition to the native Hangouts messaging, it also supported SMS and Google Voice messages. Hangouts did group video calls five years before Zoom blew up, and it had clients on Android, iOS, the web, Gmail, and every desktop OS via a Chrome extension.
As usual, though, Google lacked any kind of long-term plan or ability to commit to a single messaging strategy, and Hangouts only survived as the „everything“ messenger for a single year. By 2016, Google moved on to the next shiny messaging app and left Hangouts to rot.
Even if Google could magically roll out RCS everywhere, it’s a poor standard to build a messaging platform on because it is dependent on a carrier phone bill. It’s anti-Internet and can’t natively work on webpages, PCs, smartwatches, and tablets, because those things don’t have SIM cards. The carriers designed RCS, so RCS puts your carrier bill at the center of your online identity, even when free identification methods like email exist and work on more devices. Google is just promoting carrier lock-in as a solution to Apple lock-in.
Despite Google’s complaining about iMessage, the company seems to have learned nothing from its years of messaging failure. Today, Google messaging is the worst and most fragmented it has ever been. As of press time, the company runs eight separate messaging platforms, none of which talk to each other: there is Google Messages/RCS, which is being promoted today, but there’s also Google Chat/Hangouts, Google Voice, Google Photos Messages, Google Pay Messages, Google Maps Business Messages, Google Stadia Messages, and Google Assistant Messaging. Those last couple of apps aren’t primarily messaging apps but have all ended up rolling their own siloed messaging platform because no dominant Google system exists for them to plug into.
The situation is an incredible mess, and no single Google product is as good as Hangouts was in 2015. So while Google goes backward, it has resorted to asking other tech companies to please play nice with it while it continues to fumble through an incoherent messaging strategy.
Soon after 19-year-old Adele Lowitz gave up her AppleAAPL 0.51% iPhone 11 for an experimental go with an Android smartphone, a friend in her long-running texting group chimed in: “Who’s green?”
The reference to the color of group text messages—Android users turn Apple Inc.’s iMessage into green bubbles instead of blue—highlighted one of the challenges of her experiment. No longer did her group chats work seamlessly with other peers, almost all of whom used iPhones. FaceTime calls became more complicated and the University of Michigan sophomore’s phone didn’t show up in an app she used to find friends.
That pressure to be a part of the blue text group is the product of decisions by Apple executives starting years ago that have, with little fanfare, built iMessage into one of the world’s most widely used social networks and helped to cement the iPhone’s dominance among young smartphone users in the U.S.
How that happened came to light last year during Apple’s courtroom fight against “Fortnite” maker Epic Games Inc., which claimed the tech giant held an improper monopoly over distribution of apps onto the iPhone. As part of the battle, thousands of pages of internal records were made public. Some revealed a long-running debate about whether to offer iMessage on phones that run with Google’s Android operating system. Apple made a critical decision: Keep iMessage for Apple users only.
“In the absence of a strategy to become the primary messaging service for [the] bulk of cell phone users, I am concerned the iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones,” Craig Federighi, Apple’s chief software executive, said in a 2013 email. Three years later, then-marketing chief Phil Schiller made a similar case to Chief Executive Tim Cook in another email: “Moving iMessage to Android will hurt us more than help us,” he said. Another warning that year came from a former Apple executive who told his old colleagues in an email that “iMessage amounts to serious lock-in.”
When Adele Lowitz, left, experimented with using an Android smartphone instead of an iPhone, one friend asked: ‘Who’s green?’ PHOTO: STEVE KOSS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
When Adele Lowitz, left, experimented with using an Android smartphone instead of an iPhone, one friend asked: ‘Who’s green?’ PHOTO: STEVE KOSS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
From the beginning, Apple got creative in its protection of iMessage’s exclusivity. It didn’t ban the exchange of traditional text messages with Android users but instead branded those messages with a different color; when an Android user is part of a group chat, the iPhone users see green bubbles rather than blue. It also withheld certain features. There is no dot-dot-dot icon to demonstrate that a non-iPhone user is typing, for example, and an iMessage heart or thumbs-up annotation has long conveyed to Android users as text instead of images.
Apple later took other steps that enhanced the popularity of its messaging service with teens. It added popular features such as animated cartoon-like faces that create mirrors of a user’s face, to compete with messaging services from social media companies. Apple’s own survey of iPhone holders made public during the Epic Games litigation found that customers were particularly fond of replacing words with emojis and screen effects such as animated balloons and confetti. Avid teen users said in interviews with The Wall Street Journal that they also liked how they could create group chats with other Apple users that add and subtract participants without having to start a new chain.
How Apple’s iPhone and Apps Trap You in a Walled GardenYOU MAY ALSO LIKEUP NEXT 0:00 / 6:21 How Apple’s iPhone and Apps Trap You in a Walled GardenApple’s hardware, software and services work so harmoniously that it is often called a “walled garden.” The idea is central to recent antitrust scrutiny and the Epic vs. Apple case. WSJ’s Joanna Stern went to a real walled garden to explain it all. Photo illustration: Adele Morgan/The Wall Street Journal
The cultivation of iMessage is consistent with Apple’s broader strategy to tie its hardware, software and services together in a self-reinforcing world—dubbed the walled garden—that encourages people to pay the premium for its relatively expensive gadgets and remain loyal to its brand. That strategy has drawn scrutiny from critics and lawmakers as part of a larger examination of how all tech giants operate. Their core question: Do Apple and other tech companies create products that consumers simply find indispensable, or are they building near-monopolies that unfairly stifle competition?
Apple in its fight against Epic Games denied it held improper monopoly power in the smartphone market, pointing to intense competition globally with other phone makers and Android’s operating system. “With iMessage we built a great service that our users love and that is different from those offered by other platforms,” the company said in a statement.
Apple and other tech giants have long worked hard to get traction with young users, hoping to build brand habits that will extend into adulthood as they battle each other for control of everything from videogames to extended reality glasses to the metaverse. Globally, Alphabet Inc.’s Android operating system is the dominant player among smartphone users, with a loyal following of people who are vocal about their support. Among U.S. consumers, 40% use iPhones, but among those aged 18 to 24, more than 70% are iPhone users, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners’s most recent survey of consumers.
Shoppers at an Apple store in November.
PHOTO: NIYI FOTE/ZUMA PRESS
Apple is not the first tech company to come up with a must-have chat tool among young people, and such services sometimes struggle to stay relevant. BlackBerry and America Online were among the popular online communication forums of past decades that eventually lost ground to newer entrants.
Yet grabbing users so early in life could pay dividends for generations for Apple, already the world’s most valuable publicly traded company. It briefly crossed $3 trillion in market value for the first time on Jan. 3.
“These teenagers will continue to become consumers in the future and hopefully continue to buy phones into their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s,” said Harsh Kumar, an analyst for Piper Sandler. The firm recently found that 87% of teens surveyed last year own iPhones.
Never date a green texter
Apple’s iMessage plays a significant role in the lives of young smartphone users and their parents, according to data and interviews with a dozen of these people. Teens and college students said they dread the ostracism that comes with a green text. The social pressure is palpable, with some reporting being ostracized or singled out after switching away from iPhones.
“In my circle at college, and in high school rolling over into college, most people have iPhones and utilize a lot of those kinds of iPhone specific features” together, said Ms. Lowitz, the Michigan student.
She said she came to realize that Apple had effectively created a social network of features that keeps users, such as her and others, locked in. “There was definitely some kind of pressure to get back to that,” she said.
Many of the new iMessage features—such as the 3D-like digital avatars known as memojis—exist fundamentally as a reason to own an iPhone and don’t make money for Apple directly. Last year Apple also made it possible to share FaceTime connections with Android users—a slight crack in Apple’s self-reinforcing ecosystem as video calling became more prevalent during the pandemic. In recent years, however, it has incorporated some moneymaking elements including Apple Pay and e-commerce links to other businesses such as Starbucks.
“We know that Apple users appreciate having access to innovative features like iCloud synching across all their Apple devices, Tapback and Memoji, as well as industry-leading privacy and security with end-to-end encryption—all of which make iMessage unique,” Apple said in a statement.Youthful ExuberanceThe share of Apple iPhones in the U.S. has swelleddramatically among young smartphone owners. Source: Consumer Intelligence Research PartnersNote: Annual survey conducted each September of 2,000 U.S. peoplewho purchased a smartphone in the previous 12 months. Age 18-24Older than 242014’15’16’17’18’19’20’2120304050607080%
Apple’s iMessage uses the internet to send text, video and photo messages, while iPhone users communicating with non-Apple users use old-school cellular channels such as SMS and MMS. Apple said its closed, encrypted system ensures messages are protected from hackers. Apple also disputes the idea that users are locked in to iMessage, saying users can easily switch to other smartphones.
A Google executive said Apple could make it easier for iMessage and Android users to communicate. “There are no real technical or product reasons for this issue,” Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google senior vice president of platforms and ecosystems, said. “The solutions already exist and we encourage Apple to join with the rest of the mobile industry in implementing them. We believe people should have the ability to connect with each other without artificial limits. It simply doesn’t have to be like this.” TECH NEWS BRIEFINGWhat Apple’s Texting App Tells Us About Its Strategy to Attract Users 00:00
IPhone users switch among a variety of apps to communicate. But if you use an iPhone, it is likely you’re also using iMessage. Apple’s internal research made public during the Epic Games litigation found that a survey of U.S. iPhone users, some as young as 14, overwhelmingly use iMessage. Among those who used an instant messaging app at least once a month, 85% of those surveyed said they used iMessage compared with 57% and 16% using Meta’s Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, respectively, the Apple research showed. Meta’s messaging apps are widely used globally. WhatsApp, for example, topped 2 billion users in 2020.
In the pitched battle for messaging, Facebook executives in recent years became interested in capturing users at a younger age, according to documents reviewed by the Journal that formed the basis of a series of articles, called the Facebook Files, published in recent months.
One Facebook study, shared internally in 2019, aimed to understand why iMessage and SnapInc.’s Snapchat were the primary messaging apps for 10- to 13-year-olds. The research focused attention on a popular game played through iMessage called “Game Pigeon.”
The third-party game, acquired through Apple’s App Store and designed to operate in the messaging app, illustrates just one of the ways iMessages connects with young people. The game consists of users taking turns playing activities, such as checkers or word games, and allows for texting back-and-forth among players. “Game Pigeon” can’t be played between iPhone and Android users.
Miles Franklin, a longtime Android loyalist, was left out of rounds of a popular online game in high school. He switched to an iPhone two years ago.
PHOTO: MILES FRANKLIN
Facebook researchers concluded the appeal revolved around the social aspect of the games, helping younger people initiate conversations. “Game Pigeon generates amusement through digital interaction without the pressures of finding topics of conversation by enabling tweens to send games as content interactions and to use shared activities as a way to connect when they feel there is nothing to talk about,” according to the study.
Rounds of “Game Pigeon” in high school among friends were the first time Miles Franklin said he realized he was left out with his Android phone. “That’s my first taste of it,” said Mr. Franklin, now a 22-year-old senior at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
He said he long considered himself an Android loyalist going back to when he got his first phone at age 13 for his birthday. That changed, however, two years ago when he switched to an iPhone because he preferred it for making TikTok videos.
While it seems simple enough to shift to another messaging service, it isn’t in real life, according to Mr. Franklin. “I personally would do that,” he said. “But I’m not everyone else. I can’t convince other people to switch over to another app because they’re not gonna want to do that unless you’re really close to them.”
Grace Fang, 20-years-old, said she too saw such social dynamics among her peers at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “I’ve had people with Androids apologize that they have Androids and don’t have iMessage,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s Apple propaganda or just like a tribal in-group versus out-group thing going on, but people don’t seem to like green text bubbles that much and seem to have this visceral negative reaction to it.” Ms. Fang added that she finds the hubbub silly and that she prefers to avoid texting all together.
‘I’ve had people with Androids apologize that they have Androids and don’t have iMessage,” said Grace Fang.
PHOTO: ASHLEY PANDYA
Jocelyn Maher, a 24-year-old master’s student in upstate New York, said her friends and younger sister have mocked her for exchanging texts with potential paramours using Android phones. “I was like, `Oh my gosh, his texts are green,’ and my sister literally went, `Ew that’s gross,’” Ms. Maher said.
She noted that she once successfully persuaded a boyfriend to switch to an iPhone after some gentle badgering. Their relationship didn’t last.
Such interactions have made fertile ground for memes on social media. During the pandemic, Jeremy Cangiano, who just finished up his MBA at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, dealt with his boredom on TikTok, quickly noticing that blue-bubble-green-bubble memes were popular among young people. He tried to cash in on it last year by selling his own merchandise that touted, “Never Date a Green Texter.”
The blue iMessage bubble was born out of a simple engineering need, according to Justin Santamaria, a former Apple engineer who worked on the original feature. At first, Apple engineers just wanted to be able to easily identify iMessages when working with other texting formats as they developed their system, he said. The effect just stuck as it moved forward for consumer rollout.
“I had no idea that there would be a cachet or like, `Ugh green bubble conversations,’” he said. The idea that it would keep users locked in to using Apple devices wasn’t even part of the conversation at the time, he said.
The idea of opening iMessage to Android users arose in 2013, according to some of the internal records made public during the courtroom fight with Epic Games. As a market rumor circulated that Google was considering the acquisition of the popular messaging app WhatsApp, senior Apple executives discussed how such an acquisition might roil competition and how they might better compete.
Eddy Cue, who oversees Apple’s services business, told his colleagues he had some of his team investigating how to make iMessage available on Android phones, according to an email that surfaced as part of the Epic Games litigation. “We should go full speed and make this an official project,” he advised. “Google will instantly own messaging with this acquisition.”
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Mr. Schiller, the executive who at the time oversaw marketing, wrote: “And since we make no money on iMessage what will be the point?” Mr. Cue responded: “Do we want to lose one of the most important apps in a mobile environment to Google? They have search, mail, free video and growing quickly in browsers. We have the best messaging app and we should make it the industry standard. I don’t know what ways we can monetize it but it doesn’t cost us a lot to run.”
Others weighed in. Mr. Federighi, Apple’s chief software executive, said in an email that he worried that making iMessage an option on Android could have a serious downside by removing an obstacle for iPhone families to get their children Android phones.
In the end, Google didn’t buy WhatsApp and Apple didn’t make its iMessage available to Android users. Facebook ultimately acquired WhatsApp in 2014 for $22 billion, ratcheting up competition with Apple.
In just a few years, the value of iMessage’s blue texts had become more clear to Apple execs. After an executive left the company and began using an Android, he wrote former colleagues in 2016 and said he had switched back to iPhones after just a few months.
His family resorted to using Facebook products to message him, former Apple Music executive Ian Rogers said in the email. “I missed a ton of messages from friends and family who all use iMessage and kept messaging me at my old address,” he wrote, adding that “iMessage amounts to serious lock-in.”
The note, which became public during Apple’s litigation with Epic Games, eventually made its way to Mr. Cook through then-marketing chief Mr. Schiller, who added his own two cents: “Moving iMessage to Android will hurt us more than help us, this email illustrates why.”
As for Ms. Lowitz, the Michigan college student, she was glad when her switch to Android—brought about by her participation in a paid research study—came to an end. She was ready to get back to her iPhone. “There’s too much within the Apple network for me to switch,” she said.
Anna Fuder, 19, a friend at Michigan who had declined to participate in the study for fear of giving up her iPhone, was overjoyed. “As soon as she switched back to her iPhone, it was like hallelujah,” Ms. Fuder said. “Blue again.
Google Talk, Google’s first-ever instant messaging platform, launched on August 24, 2005. This company has been in the messaging business for 16 years, meaning Google has been making messaging clients for longer than some of its rivals have existed. But thanks to a decade and a half of nearly constant strategy changes, competing product launches, and internal sabotage, you can’t say Google has a dominant or even stable instant messaging platform today.
Google’s 16 years of messenger wheel-spinning has allowed products from more focused companies to pass it by. Embarrassingly, nearly all of these products are much younger than Google’s messaging efforts. Consider competitors like WhatsApp (12 years old), Facebook Messenger (nine years old), iMessage (nine years old), and Slack (eight years old)—Google Talk even had video chat four years before Zoom was a thing.
Currently, you would probably rank Google’s offerings behind every other big-tech competitor. A lack of any kind of top-down messaging leadership at Google has led to a decade and a half of messaging purgatory, with Google both unable to leave the space altogether and unable to commit to a single product. While companies like Facebook and Salesforce invest tens of billions of dollars into a lone messaging app, Google seems content only to spin up an innumerable number of under-funded, unstable side projects led by job-hopping project managers. There have been periods when Google briefly produced a good messaging solution, but the constant shutdowns, focus-shifting, and sabotage of established products have stopped Google from carrying much of these user bases—or user goodwill—forward into the present day.
Because no single company has ever failed at something this badly, for this long, with this many different products (and because it has barely been a month since the rollout of Google Chat), the time has come to outline the history of Google messaging. Prepare yourselves, dear readers, for a non-stop rollercoaster of new product launches, neglected established products, unexpected shut-downs, and legions of confused, frustrated, and exiled users.
Google Talk (2005)—Google’s first chat service, built on open protocols
Lifetime: August 24, 2005-June 26, 2017 (12 years, until a Hangouts merger in 2013)
Clients: Windows, Android, the web, Gmail, Blackberry, iPhone, iGoogle, Orkut, any XMPP client
In the beginning, there was Google Talk, and things were good. Google’s first messaging service (which often got the unofficial nickname „GChat“) was also one of its best. It boasted a wide range of platform support, a long shelf life, and useful integration in a number of other Google products. Google Talk was part of the second big wave of popular instant messaging apps, and it seemed primed to take on the 1990’s stalwarts of instant messaging like AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger.
So much about Google Talk’s life and design sounds like it was created by a totally different company from the Google that exists today. The original vision for Google Talk was about openness and „enabling user choice.“ Google wanted instant messaging to work like email, where different service providers and clients could all talk to each other over a single standard (wouldn’t that have been nice?). That standard was XMPP, or the „Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol,“ an open source communication protocol used for passing around chat messages, presence information, contacts, and more. Google pledged to federate (or allow cross-communication) with any other chat service supporting the standard. You could also punch the right settings into any XMPP-compatible third-party client and talk to your Google Talk friends.
Because Ars Technica is a Very Old Website, you can still read a day-one, 2005 Google Talk review right here from Ars Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher (can you believe Ken used to write articles?). Back then, Ken called day-one Google Talk „the Stone Age of instant messaging,“ citing a severe lack of features like file sharing, chat logs, group chat, or emoticons. There was one supported platform at launch: Microsoft Windows. That was mostly fine in 2005 when Windows had something like a 97 percent market share. Even then, XMPP support meant that you could still get online with the other 3 percent of operating systems by using a ton of third-party clients.
There will be a few recurring themes in this exhaustive history, and one of them is Google’s penchant for launching things in a „Minimum Viable Product“ (MVP) state. MVP is Silicon Valley project manager lingo for launching with the absolute bare minimum of features, getting feedback from the public quickly, and letting that feedback determine the future of the product. The idea is that it’s cheaper, easier, and less risky than developing a fully featured product in a bubble, since such a product might miss the mark with the public despite all the work. The downside to an MVP launch is that your product gets the most attention and news coverage when it is brand new, and you’re often giving a bad first impression. In a competitive landscape, there’s a chance the public will check out your bare-bones creation, declare it to be hopeless, and forget about it.
Google does MVP launches all the time, and with Google Talk, that meant launching with the ability to send messages, do voice chat, and little else. Later we’ll cover some of Google’s dead-on-arrival MVP launches, but 2005 was a different era. Many people saw Google Talk’s bare-bones interface and features as a positive thing. In the era of AOL Instant Messenger, IM clients were noisy, flashy billboards with a million features and dedicated UI space for banner ads. A 2006 post from the Google Operating System blog sums up the differences well with installer file sizes, which is an interesting benchmark metric. Yahoo Messenger was 9.5MB. Windows Live Messenger was 15.3MB. Google Talk was a lean, mean 1.45MB.
While the AOL-style kitchen sink design was horrible, it also solved a key problem that will hang over Google’s efforts: „How does a messaging service make money?“ Back in the AIM days, that was answered with a literal banner ad in the UI. Every AOL user was generating ad impressions and revenue every time they used the service. Google Talk’s removal of the banner ad was a breath of fresh air, but it also meant the product had no plan for making money. The vast majority of Google’s messaging apps have nothing to offer when it comes to the monetization question. Maybe that’s a big part of why we’re here.
While Google Talk launched as a basic product, once it was out the door, a series of rapid-fire updates followed. In December, Google bought a 5 percent stake in AOL for $1 billion and promised a cross-communication between AIM, ICQ, and Google Talk. January 2006 saw the first official mobile client: a Blackberry app (Android did not exist yet) and federation with the public XMPP network. In February, Google Talk became integrated with Gmail on the web and added chat logs. Avatar support came in March, and July brought file transfers, voicemail, and sharing music status. September opened up Google Talk to non „Gmail accounts“ (this pre-dates unified Google accounts), and November added integration with Orkut, a social network the company launched two years earlier. By the end of the year, Google announced plans for integration with traditional phone systems, letting you dial a phone number from your computer.
The Gmail integration at around the six-month mark was a big deal for Google Talk. Chat contacts got a spot in the Gmail sidebar, and chat messages would appear as pop-up windows alongside your email. As Google put it in its blog post, „Gmail is now just another XMPP client that connects to the Google Talk network.“ If Gmail users didn’t check out Google Talk when it first launched or gave up on it after trying the bare-bones launch, they would definitely be reminded of it now that it got a headline spot in the Gmail interface.
A lot of Google’s future instant messaging decisions seem to be about recapturing the magic of Google Talk, and it seems like one of the lessons learned was „leverage the rest of the Google user base to shove your new product in front of users.“ Like with MVP launches, this strategy would fail spectacularly in the future, but it worked out for Google Talk. Web-based IM was novel in 2006, and casting a slightly wider net with Gmail from „email“ to „communication“ made sense. Gmail integration also brought with it chat logging, via a searchable, cloud-stored „chat“ label in Gmail. Being able to dig through all your email and chats with a single search was great.
That was basically the first year of Google Talk’s existence, and the overwhelming feeling at the time was „optimism.“ While the original MVP release could have turned off some users, Google quickly addressed complaints with the original release, and Talk felt like a growing instant messaging service with a bright future and lots of resources behind it. Plus, it was from Google. In the 2005-era, Google was a rocketship. This was a company that recently disrupted the web email market with the launch of Gmail and its astounding 1GB of free online storage. Google Maps had just arrived with the revolutionary ability to move the map around without having to reload the entire website. Google had just had an IPO! This was a company that was regularly up-ending existing markets, and now the company was going to be a dominant force in the instant messaging market, right?
Many of Google Talk’s clients were for things you’ve probably forgotten about. A client for the „iGoogle“ customizable homepage arrived in 2007, along with a standalone web client at Google.com/talk. Today, Google developing a single native Windows app sounds crazy, but in 2008, a second Windows client called the „Google Talk Labs Edition“ just threw the web edition of Google Talk into a Win32 WebKit box, complete with support for notifications. Google really started to neglect the native Windows client once this launched, making the Labs Edition—basically the web edition—the premiere version.
In 2008, Google Talk arrived on the iPhone via—who remembers this?—a mobile web app! While the iPhone launched in 2007, the native iPhone app store did not launch until later in 2008, and developers were limited to web apps made for Safari.
2008 also would mark Google’s first foray into video chat, first with Google Talk in Gmail and later in the main client. A side project from all this messaging research will be „Google is also terrible at video chat.“ While this video iteration wasn’t yet the group video chat solution that Google is still scrambling to get together in the coronavirus age, Google’s video chat ambitions actually started 12 years ago.
Google Talk’s voice and video chat required a browser plugin. It ran on technology from a company called „Global IP Solution (GIPS),“ which sold VoIP engines to companies like Google, AOL, Yahoo, Oracle, and WebEx. In 2010, Google decided it relied enough on the company and bought GIPS for $68 million. A year later, Google open-sourced GIPS’s technology and IP, giving birth to the WebRTC project. Today, WebRTC is the dominant VoIP technology and a W3C standard, allowing most web browsers to make a voice or video call with zero plugins.
Google Talk ran Android’s entire push notification system
By 2008, a little operating system called „Android“ came out of the Googleplex. BBM—Blackberry Messenger—had launched a few years earlier and was a valued feature of Blackberry phones, and so the Android Team became big fans of Google Talk, which it could use as a BBM fighter. The team shipped an original client along with Android 1.0 and added video chat support in 2011. Android didn’t just support Google Talk, though; it was actually a core feature of the operating system. Android’s entire cloud messaging system runs on XMPP, and, in the beginning at least, it was the same always-on Google connection as your Google Talk account. In fact, for a long time, Android’s background process for all push notifications and syncing was called „GTalkService.“
GTalkService ran communication for Android’s entire push notification system, meaning that even things like a new Gmail notification came blasting down an always-on chat session between you and Google. XMPP was a real-time, authenticated way to quickly pass messages back and forth, so Google built an OS-wide notification system around it. The early days of Android development were done at a break-neck pace to try to catch up to the iPhone, and messy decisions like merging push notifications with your in-house messaging service helped get there faster.
Google eventually opened up the push system to third parties, first with Android „Cloud to Device Messaging,“ then „Google Cloud Messaging,“ and then „Firebase Cloud Messaging.“ (If you haven’t noticed, Google likes to reboot and rename products.) The modern Firebase Cloud Messaging is actually still XMPP-based to this day, though. Of course, it has been separated from Google Talk now.
I am just going to go ahead and call GTalkService the early ancestor of Google Play Services. GTalkService wasn’t only used for notifications on Android—the cloud synchronization of Google account data also ran through the GTalkService, keeping things like your contacts and calendar events up to date. GTalkService was even used to install apps on Android. The co-founder of Duo Security, Jon Oberheide, has two fantastic writeups on GTalkService from 2010. As he explains, „When you click to install an app through the Android Market, Google pushes down an INSTALL_ASSET to your phone [over GtalkService] which causes it to fetch and install that application.“ You didn’t actually request the app package from the Android app store, they were pushed to your phone via Google Talk. (Did I mention early Android development was quick and dirty?)
The benefit of doing app install calls over push notifications is that you don’t actually have to be in front of your phone to install an app. Google surfaced this feature with the Android Market (now Play Store) website, where you could remotely install a phone app from your desktop web browser—it’s all the same push request. GTalkService even gives Google a nuclear option for malware. The company could remotely uninstall malicious apps from your phone, without your permission! Oberheide holds the distinction of being the first person to trigger a remote, mass uninstall after uploading a (harmless) malware proof-of-concept app to the Android Market in 2010. After unveiling its malware nuke to the world, Google warned: „While we hope to not have to use it, we know that we have the capability to take swift action on behalf of users’ safety when needed.“
The slow death of GTalk
After maybe 2009, not much happened with Google Talk. The Android team kept building mobile clients up until 2011, but it seemed like the original team lost interest in the service. This is how it always works with Google chat services. The ones that don’t get shut down eventually are abandoned and left to rot. Users get frustrated with the lack of continual development and old clients and slowly migrate to other services. Eventually, a new Google team comes along with plans to reboot everything.
The shutdown of Google Talk was a very slow transition, and with the plethora of clients, the merger with Google Hangouts, and third-party XMPP support, it’s hard to pick an exact time of death. But the beginning of the end for Google Talk was in 2013 with the release of the Hangouts chat service we know today. Hangouts wasn’t just another messaging app, it was a replacement for Google Talk, allowing you to carry your contacts and messages to the new service. Some clients, like the Android Google Talk app, got an in-place automatic upgrade to Google Hangouts, along with optional transitions and replacements for most clients. The first major client shutdown came two years later when the Google Talk Windows client officially stopped accepting logins on February 23, 2015.
If you really wanted to go down with the ship, the last gasp for Google Talk was surprisingly late: June 26, 2017. At that point, third-party XMPP connections to the Google Talk service stopped working, the Gmail web integration was forcefully transitioned to Hangouts, and (if you had somehow dodged Android app updates for four continuous years) the legacy Google Talk app also stopped working. Google Talk had long become irrelevant with the rise of Hangouts in 2013, but if you wanted to pick a final death date, June 2017 is it. RIP Google Talk.
Part of the reason for the lengthy shutdown is that it wasn’t just „Google Talk: the consumer chat service“ that Google was turning off. It was also „Google Talk: The back end XMPP Google service“ that Google needed to make sure kept running, which by now had wound its tendrils into several services. Google Talk needed to be killed without interrupting service for Firebase Cloud Messaging, which grew out of the XMPP project. Google Docs actually had a bit of a service interruption when Google Talk finally shut down in 2017, too. While it was never cross-compatible with Google Talk, it turns out those pop-up chat boxes were actually based on Google Talk originally. A GSuite blog post in 2017 mentioned that, because „Docs Editors chat functionality is built on Google Talk,“ work needed to be done to „decouple the feature from Talk“ when it shut down. G Suite organizations that didn’t get their transitional Google Talk and Google Hangouts settings correct would briefly lose chat functionality.
Google really doesn’t do product shutdowns like this anymore: shutdowns where you had a lengthy four-year shutdown period and not just a relatively smooth transition to a new service but a fully optional transition that lasted several years. Today, the company is simply a lot more ruthless about kicking users off a service and abandoning them.
Google Talk got a really long section in this history, but it deserves it. As Google’s first and one of its most successful instant messaging services, it set the blueprint for everything that followed. If you pay attention, you’ll see future Google messaging services poorly try to copy Google Talk’s homework, often with disastrous results. When you’re the OG Google chat service, you’re adding new features that didn’t exist before for Google users. When you’re everything that comes after Google Talk, people are just asking, „How is this better than Google Talk?“
Google Voice (2009)—SMS and Phone calls get a dose of the Internet
Lifetime: March 11, 2009—Present
Clients: web, Android, iPhone, Web OS, Blackberry
It only took 3.5 years after the launch of Google Talk for a second Google messaging service to appear, though it actually had a good argument for why it should exist alongside Google Talk. In March 2009, Google asked the question: „What if we rigged up the phone system to the Internet?“ and Google Voice was born. Instead of a landline phone number or a cell phone number, Google Voice gave users a Google phone number—with an area code and everything—that was device agnostic. Your phone calls could be forwarded to other phone numbers based on the time or contact, and your text messages were accessible via the web and various apps.
The best part of Google Voice is having a number that really feels like you own it. In the early days of Google Voice, carriers made number porting as annoying as possible, and switching cell providers could mean losing your carrier-owned phone number. With Google Voice, it didn’t matter. You could give everyone your Google Voice number, and switching services just meant adding a new forwarding number that you never told anyone about.
The origins of Google Voice actually started back in 2007 when Google acquired GrandCentral Communications. GrandCentral was where all of Google Voice’s phone call (as opposed to messaging) functionality came from. It offered a new phone number with forwarding to other lines and an audio-only voicemail box that was accessible over the Internet. There wasn’t any texting functionality, though.
With the launch of Google Voice, Google added a ton of features to GrandCentral, like SMS support, conference calling, and low-cost international calling. The Googliest feature was voicemail transcription, where Google’s voice recognition AI would (attempt to) transcribe your voicemail into easily scannable text. In the early days, it wasn’t super accurate, but Voicemail transcription was still better than the black box of a play button. There was usually enough wonky text information to figure out if the voicemail was important or not. Voicemail transcription was one of Google’s first voice recognition products, and in the early days, Google Voice’s „creative“ interpretations of voicemail audio gave rise to the meme of sharing failed and funny Google Voice transcript errors. Take a look; Google’s speech-to-text technology has come a long way.
We’re here for the texting part of Google Voice, though, and SMSes to your Google Voice number worked just like a texting app. These showed up anywhere you had the app installed or on the web instead of being siloed on your phone. Since Google Voice was SMS, there were basically no features. Even getting MMS support was a long-running battle: it first showed up for Sprint users (via email) in 2011, but proper MMS support on all carriers didn’t arrive until 2017. Voice was never a flashy service, but since Google Voice was SMS, it let you talk with anyone, and it let you pull your dumb cell phone number into the cloud where it could work on multiple devices.
Voice was seen as a threat to carriers at the time, so the service ruffled a few feathers when it came out. When Google submitted an official Google Voice app to Apple’s app store, Apple rejected Google’s app and removed a few third-party Google Voice apps it had previously approved. This move drew the ire of the FCC, and it questioned Apple’s exclusive carrier partner at the time (in the US): AT&T. With free VoIP calls, SMS, and voicemails, Google Voice was an obvious threat to AT&T, which previously had been against VoIP apps on the iPhone. AT&T told the FCC it was not involved, however. Google said Apple VP Phil Schiller personally blocked the app, saying Apple didn’t want apps that „duplicated the core dialer functionality of the iPhone.“ Apple said it had not, in fact, rejected the Google Voice app, and it was still „studying“ the app. The Google Voice iPhone app was initially submitted in June 2009, and by the time of the FCC inquiry, the Google Voice app had been delayed for two months. Apple must have been doing a marathon study session!
Apple’s „studying“ continued for the entirety of 2009, and by January 2010 Google had launched a Google Voice mobile web app for iPhone and Palm’s WebOS (may it rest in peace). Apple ruled over the App Store with an iron fist, but it couldn’t stop the Internet, and Apple users could point their browser at the Google Voice mobile site and make calls, view voicemail, or send SMS all through a web page. The downside was that the web couldn’t do notifications at the time, so Google Voice didn’t really work well for receiving SMSes or voicemails. It wasn’t until November 2010 that Apple finally finished its meticulous study session and let Google Voice into the app store.
Google Voice is the first item on our list that is actually still around; every day that Google Voice continues to exist feels like a surprise. The service has been hanging around for 11 years now and has spent most of its life in the „neglect“ stage of a Google messaging service. It often feels like Google Voice exists in a dusty closet at Google HQ somewhere, and the company forgets about it for years at a time.
Besides seeing its share of neglect, Google Voice has also seen its share of shutdowns. Google Voice used to have a range of third-party apps, but Google killed them all in a single swing one day in 2014. The company declared that any third-party apps that worked with Google Voice phone calls or SMS—which, by the way, had been operating for years—were „unauthorized,“ „a threat to your security,“ and „violating the terms of service.“ Google didn’t want to allow third-party Voice apps but also didn’t want to develop the first-party app itself, so it left users stuck with the crappy, neglected app.
We’ve already talked about how Google Talk and the Android push notifications were built around XMPP, but would you believe Google Voice at one point also used XMPP? XMPP was used to connect calls, and with this open standard, users could rig up landline phones to work directly over the Google Voice system, making it a VoIP provider. You’d also get free voice calls. XMPP support was shut down in 2018, but it sounds like it was replaced with some kind of closed-off solution that can be licensed by some companies. Polycom, for instance, still makes Google Voice FXO VoIP Gateways.
Google Voice has seen a resurgence starting around the launch of Google Fi in 2015, which merged the Google Voice feature set with an MVNO service. The two services were so similar at launch that you couldn’t even have both a Google Fi number and a Google Voice number—you had to port your Voice number to Google Fi. Since then we’ve seen a renewed commitment to Google Voice from Google, with revamped apps launching in 2017. Google Voice became a part of GSuite in 2018 and got mobile VoIP calls in 2019.
Google Wave (2009)—An email killer from the future
Lifetime: May 28, 2009—January 31, 2012 (2 years, 8 months but declared dead August 4, 2010)
Platforms: The web
I personally believe that Google Wave does not belong on a list of messaging apps, but every time I leave it out of a messaging app discussion I inevitablyget comments saying, „I can’t believe you forgot Google Wave!“ To stop those, it’s this exercise’s policy to cast a wide net and cover borderline products, at the very least so we can formally define them as „not a messaging app.“ Thus, Wave makes the cut.
For the record: Google Wave was email, not a messaging app. It wasn’t really used for one-to-one communication, and at no point was it possible to deliver notifications to a phone. At Google I/O 2009, Google introduced Wave to the world specifically as an email alternative, with co-creator Lars Rasmussen saying „Email was invented over 40 years ago…what might email look like if it was invented today?“ At no point was Wave out to replace Google Talk.
On the desktop, Wave had three main columns: a navigation and contact column on the right, an inbox in the middle, and a message view on the right. Like email, Wave would let you create message threads, and users could reply to either an entire group or a single person. Because Wave was hosted content and not email text that was copied to local computers, contact selection worked more like a modern permission system or chat room. You could grant or remove access to Wave threads by adding or removing people.
Wave was the first Google product to do real-time, letter-by-letter communication. The service would instantly send each keystroke across the Internet, and it would show up on another person’s screen, all through the magic of HTML5. Active Wave threads looked alive, with replies popping up, and images being uploaded in real time, letter by letter, without refreshing the page. Wave even had a feature called „Playback“ where the entire Wave creation process could be played back (in chunks) from scratch.
The live typing, letter-by-letter technology was eventually brought to Google Docs, which is where most people encounter this sensation today. The Wave team actually demoed collaborative document creation in a Wave, complete with in-line comments. Wave’s input system was really the basis for the modern version of Google Docs, and the entire document system was deemed good enough to be ported over.
Wave was created by Lars and Jens Rasmussen, the same pair of brothers who brought the world Google Maps. In the same way that Google Maps‘ live, scrollable map was a revolution for browsers at the time, Wave’s live typing and other app-like features were cutting-edge stuff at the time (though an app called EtherPad, which Google later acquired, cracked live typing first). The I/O 2009 intro to Wave felt like it was from another era. „[Wave] is an unbelievable, powerful demonstration of what is possible in the browser,“ Engineering VP Vic Gundotra told the crowd. „Over the next hour and a half, as you see this product, you. will. forget. that you are looking at the browser. I want you to repeat after me: I am looking at an HTML5 app. I am looking at what’s possible in the browser.“ Hearing this again is wild. Remember when browser apps sucked?
Another „you can do that in a browser?!“ feature of Wave was the ability to upload photos with drag-and-drop, just like in a native app. This was the one ability of Wave that wasn’t purely HTML5 wizardry. It required the installation of Google Gears, Google’s browser API shim, at launch. Google said it was working to make drag and drop from the desktop part of the browser standard, and the feature eventually made it into Chrome in 2010.
While Google Wave was the first implementation of Wave, Google did not try to make itself the center of Wave or to build a walled garden. Wave was open source, and like Google Talk, Google imagined Wave as a federated platform where users on different clients and service providers could still talk to each other. The Wave Federation Protocol happened over—wait for it—XMPP, with the extra Wave bits implemented as an open extension to the XMPP core.
Wave had a heavy branch of features dedicated to APIs and bots. Waves could be embedded in blogger webpages, allowing for live edits and additions to show up on a normal web page. Wave communicated this by adding a „Blogger“ bot to a Wave, letting everyone know the information was public and keeping the embedded Wave in sync (letter by letter, in real time) with the main Wave. Some bots could do things like import tweets into a Wave or play games or do real-time translation.
I can see the confusion people have in calling Wave a messaging app. Email and messaging are both just text, so a real-time email app is just as „instant“ as an instant messaging app. The difference is in the interface, though. Wave was always a big, heavy, inbox-driven app that you were supposed to live in, making it very email-like. Wave never got any mobile apps and only supported a single platform: the browser. That meant there was a mobile version of the site, but especially in 2009, this was an awful experience. Even if you wanted to use Wave as a messaging service, without an app, you wouldn’t be able to make your phone beep about an incoming message. Therefore, it has to be disqualified from being deemed „messaging.“
Nobody knew what Wave was for or how to use it
Google announced the death of Wave on August 4, 2010, just 15 months after the service was announced. Google said flatly, „Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked.“ Wave became read-only on January 31, 2012, and all Wave content was deleted in April 2012. As an open source project, Wave was supposed to live on at the Apache Software Foundation, but the project never produced an official release, and it was retired in 2018.
A big contributor to Wave’s death was the lack of a network effect. Wave could only be used to communicate with other users on Wave, so you get the catch-22 of people only wanting to use Wave if people already used Wave. Exacerbating this problem was the fact that Google hamstrung the initial Wave userbase with an invite system, so even interested users couldn’t try out the service immediately. (Admittedly, a load of users firing up the all-live, all-the-time app was probably a scary proposition for Google’s network engineers.) Wave went a whole year before removing the invite system, which, for a collaborative communication app, seriously limited its viability. On May 26, 2010 (Google I/O 2010), Wave’s invite system was dropped, and it was open to the public. But by then, the hype was gone and no one cared. Wave lasted an incredible 70 days as a public service before Google announced it was dead.
Live, letter-by-letter typing is an interesting communication method, and if you’ve never tried, fire up Google Docs with a friend and give the document text a shot as a communication platform. For good typists, it’s a faster, more fluid form of communication that’s kind of fun. For less confident typers, live typing turns keyboard input into a high-pressure performative act with a live audience, and you can see how it would turn off some people. The lack of any kind of draft mode meant you didn’t have a free second to compose your thoughts into text or think about what you wanted to type—every letter was immediately broadcast onto the Internet, showing the world your typing speed and error rate. Google is a place full of tech-savvy computer nerds, and sometimes a group like that, building a product in a bubble, completely whiffs on the emotional human element of a messaging app or social network. This was one of those times.
Wave policy of „always live update everything, all the time“ can lead to a Wave inbox being pretty overwhelming when it is active and popular. Martin Seibert made the above video for a Techcrunch article showing just how bad it can get. Being live means the inbox just constantly jumps around as new messages load in, making it difficult to even read a thread subject before it disappears. When popular, Wave was a completely unmanageable mess where you’d never hit Inbox zero.
When Wave was still active, there was a ton of talk about federation, bots, and APIs. Users constantly hoped that someone, Google or a third party, would make Wave interoperable with any other service, like Google Talk or email. That approach would solve the problem of Wave only being useful when talking to Wave users. If Wave hooked up to another service, Wave could be useful for the individual user no matter what, and Wave features could be added any time two Wave users were communicating with each other. Google Voice did a great job of this with the phone system by adding extra features to SMS, Voicemails, and phone calls. A solid connection to an established communication network never materialized, though, so Wave never had a solid userbase.
In the peak social media days, everyone was on Facebook because everyone was on Facebook. In this case, nobody used Wave because nobody used Wave. From here on out, the network effect would forever be a huge problem for Google messaging services. Some future projects took note of this and tried to juice the initial network—in some successful and, uh, extremely unsuccessful ways. Speaking of which…
Google Buzz (2010)—The non-consensual social network
Lifetime: February 9, 2010—December 15, 2011 (1 year, 10 months)
Platforms: Desktop Gmail, mobile web apps for Android and iOS.
Where do you even start with Google Buzz, one of Google’s most notorious products? Remember that in 2005, Google Talk found a major shortcut to a big user base when it was integrated into Gmail. So, surely, the same strategy would work for Google’s social network aspirations, right? In early 2010, the Google Buzz social network launched, not as a standalone service but as a Gmail sidebar component just like Google Talk. Oh yeah, it also started automatically following and sharing stuff with your frequent email contacts without really asking users if that was OK. What followed was a whirlwind of controversy, complaints, and lawsuits, and it’s kind of astounding how most of the Google Buzz saga took place over just four days.
Google built a basic social networking app with a scrolling list of posts and replies—it was basically identical to Facebook or Twitter, but in Gmail. Follow a person. Post some text. Add a picture. Press the „like“ button. The basics were wholly unoriginal other than the fact that it was invading your email inbox.
Every single design decision made for Google Buzz can be framed as „fixing the network effect.“ Remember how Wave died because nobody used Wave? That was not going to happen with Google Buzz. Shoving the product into Gmail would quickly get it a big user base of its own. Buzz was also pitched as a „social aggregator“ and could pull in posts from other services, so even if none of your friends were on Buzz, you could still use Buzz and see their content. Buzz would pull in posts from Twitter, photos from Picasa and Flickr, or (brace yourself for sadness) articles you liked on Google Reader.
Buzz’s critical mistake was how the initial setup worked. It was totally automatic—Buzz built your social graph for you by automatically adding frequent contacts from Google Talk and Gmail. You would automatically follow them and they would automatically follow you, all without the input of a human on either end. It also automatically connected Google Reader and Google Picasa data and instantly associated any public content with your Buzz profile. From there, the service shoved all that in front of any „friends“ it detected.
Google’s day-one blog post for Google Buzz is worth a read just to get an idea of what an astoundingly out-of-touch, non-consensual nightmare the Google Buzz rollout was. „Buzz is built right into Gmail, so there’s nothing to set up,“ the blog post reads. „You’re automatically following the people you email and chat with the most.“ Buzz was also going to spam the hell out of your inbox unless you found a way to stop it: „To make sure you don’t miss out on the best part of sharing, Buzz sends responses to your posts straight to your inbox. Unlike static email messages, Buzz messages in your inbox are live conversations where comments appear in real-time.“ Google just decided to turn your email client into a social media network, and it hoped you were OK with that. Nobody was.
Buzz never got a standalone website, and it never got any mobile apps. It did get a mobile website for Android and iOS, via a coveted link on the mobile Google.com search page. Android 2.0 also integrated a Google Buzz home screen widget and Google Maps added a „buzz about this place“ button in location listings. Besides the expected mobile browsing of, uh, buzzes, mobile Buzz was also a Foursquare and Dodgeball clone, letting you tag posts with a location.
Google Buzz’s automatic setup exposed a ton of data about people without really properly informing them or getting their consent. Like most social networks, who your friends are following was public information on Buzz, but since this was created automatically from contacts, Buzz exposed everyone’s frequent email contacts to the world. Your Buzz username was also your email address, so that was automatically exposed to the world, too. If you used the Foursquare-like location sharing, then your location would be broadcasted to any „nearby“ Buzz users—not just your friends.
Buzz used a lot of the same predatory privacy tactics as Facebook, where, sure, there were technically controls for all this stuff somewhere, but they were purposefully deemphasized to trick users into making everything public. Buzz made users opt-out of exposing sensitive information, instead of having them opt-in to sharing. Users who didn’t carefully comb every square inch of the screen for the low-contrast fine print didn’t understand what they were exposing, and they felt betrayed after realizing what was shared with their contacts.
By day two, Google still wasn’t in touch with the reality of what it had done. A new blog post touted how proud Google was of all the (forced) usage Google Buzz was getting. „It’s been just two days since we first launched Google Buzz. Since then, tens of millions of people have checked Buzz out, creating over 9 million posts and comments,“ the post stated. „Plus, we’re seeing over 200 posts per minute from mobile phones around the world.“ If you’re a bean-counting, spreadsheet-obsessed, emotionless robot, this probably sounds like a success. The problem was, no normal human liked this, and most of these posts were complaints. Google’s day-two blog post gave a minor nod to some privacy concerns people had raised, but the damage was already done.
The rest of the world had turned against Buzz by day two, and the consumer revolt was incredible. Buzz was called a „privacy nightmare“ in the press. In one viral post, a woman recounted how Google Buzz’s algorithms decided it was a good idea to automatically reconnect her with her abusive ex-husband and threatened her safety.
By day four, Google finally gave up and posted an apology on its official blog. „We quickly realized that we didn’t get everything quite right,“ the company said. „We’re very sorry for the concern we’ve caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback.“ These „improvements“ involved stripping back Buzz’s automatic setup process and turning „automatic following“ into a „suggested contacts“ list. The company added better blocking controls for unwanted followers and stopped auto-connecting Picasa photos and Reader articles. It also added the option to turn off Google Buzz in the Gmail settings, finally providing an opt-out for Buzz entirely.
As far as much of the public was concerned, the entire life and death of Google Buzz occurred these first four days. Buzz launched, it messed up everyone’s Gmail for a few days, and everyone scrambled to turn it off and clean up the mess Google had made. Buzz was never anything special in terms of the actual product, and the stigma of the initial launch and the out-of-place Gmail integration made most people ignore it or turn it off.
Beyond week one, Buzz’s lasting legacy centers on lawsuits and legal action. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy watchdog and public interest research group, filed an FTC complaint over Buzz’s privacy violations. After an investigation, Google settled with the FTC, committing to maintaining a „comprehensive privacy program“ for 20 years. A class-action lawsuit was filed that eventually saw Google settle for $8.5 million. Google Buzz even earned international condemnation, with government officials from 10 countries sending Google an open letter telling it to drop its „launch now, fix later“ policy.
Buzz feels like something that was generated entirely by an algorithm. Any normally functioning human would understand that there is a difference between email and social media and what those two things are used for. Email is often an obligatory, formal, and official form of communication with people and companies; social media is for fun (theoretically). There are tons of accounts you would communicate with over email that you would never want to see on social media, and vice versa, yet no one at Google realized this during the making of Google Buzz.
Buzz’s death was announced unceremoniously as the second bullet point in one of Google’s infamous „spring cleaning“ posts on October 14, 2011. At this point, absolutely nobody cared, since all of Google’s social attention had been on its new baby, Google+ (that had launched four months earlier). Google announced Buzz would be shut down in „a few weeks“ and that it „learned a lot from products like Buzz, and are putting that learning to work every day in our vision for products like Google+.“ I can’t find any reports of the actual Google Buzz shutdown date, but the Wikipedia entry has a completely unsourced date of December 15. If accurate, that would mean the product lasted one year and one month. Really, though, Google Buzz was four days of terror and then it died.
Slide’s Disco (2011)—An independent app escapes the Googleplex
Lifetime: March 24, 2011 to October 11, 2012 (1 year, 6 months)
Platforms: iOS, Android, the web
Is this one new for you? This one is new for me. Once upon a time, there was a company called „Slide, Inc.“ It was founded in 2004 by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, and this company was the maintainer of the super-popular Facebook games Superpoke and Superpoke Pets. One day, Google—probably as part of its panic over the rise of Facebook—bought Slide. Slide had an incredible run at Google. Google announced it purchased the company on August 6, 2010, for $182 million, and then Google announced it was killing the company August 26, 2011. During those 387 days of operating under Google, Slide did the obvious thing and made a messaging app.
It was called „Disco.“
To start, it was only for iOS and only worked in the US. I feel like this app is mostly lost to time, due to only being alive for a year and mostly having a low profile during that time. The best report I can find is from Business Insider, which, in a wonderful time capsule, describes the app as „another one of those group texting apps everyone keeps talking about.“ Group messaging was apparently novel enough at the time for this kind of commentary. BI continued: „Disco is late to the game and already a bit behind in the features other group messaging apps have“ and compared it unfavorably to GroupMe, which launched a year earlier.
Group chat is not actually supported by SMS (that’s MMS, and it was not well supported at the time), but Disco did its best to turn single-target SMS into a group chat anyway. You could create a new group with the Disco app, which would generate a new phone number for the group. You and your group chat cohorts would all send their messages to this one Disco number, and Disco forward the messages to everyone else, prepended with their contact name. The Disco app didn’t actually do much. It was used for managing groups, and users could add a group number to your contacts. After that, all the actual texting happened in the iPhone SMS app. I’m going to guess this wasn’t an over-the-top messaging service for political reasons. Like we covered with Google Voice, AT&T and Apple would not have liked any service that „duplicated functionality.“ Disco still counted against your carrier’s SMS billing, though, so everyone was happy.
There wasn’t much more to Disco than this. That Business Insider report actually criticized Disco for a lack of features like „location sharing or group calling.“ Digging through the site’s Archive.org history reveals that eventually there was an Android app, and at one point you could even send messages to Disco from the web at disco.com.
Slide and Disco are both things you can add to Google+’s considerable body count. The initial blog post title, „Google and Slide: building a more social web,“ should tell you all you need to know about what happened to Slide at Google. Google+ was launching in about a year, and like all competing Google projects, Slide needed to be ground up and fed to the new social beast.
The Google+ Era (2011)—Google’s social panic
Looking back, it’s almost hard to recall the deranged fever dream that was the Google+ era. Social media was a serious fad in 2011, and after the failure of Orkut, Jaiku, and Google Buzz, Google didn’t have a social horse to bet on. Facebook had a stated goal of signing up every single human on the planet, and while it seems ridiculous today, Google saw Facebook as an existential threat. The thought was something along the lines of, „What if people ask their social graph instead of doing a Google search?“ as if asking a gaggle of people from high school was somehow equivalent to doing actual research. (Don’t do this. That’s how you get anti-vaxxers.)
Google went into a complete panic over its lack of social platform, and on June 28, 2011, Google+ was born. In addition to a regular Facebook-style social networking site, Google+ was a hyper-aggressive, all-consuming social backbone that would run through most major Google services. If users wouldn’t voluntarily use a Google social service, Google would make all of its services into a social service. The best quote showing how intense this was going to get came from Google executive Steve Grove, who dropped this doozy of a line: „Google+ is kind of like the next version of Google.“
The motivation for Google+ came directly from the top. Earlier in 2011, then-CEO Larry Page tied all employee bonuses to the success of Google+. Very little at Google is done via a top-down directive like this, making Google+ one of Google’s only products that seemed like a unified effort. Google’s typical lack of unity is why you see so many messaging apps. Android’s SMS app is handled by the Android team, and they don’t really need to talk to anyone else. Google Voice was an acquisition and created its own team. Wave was a new project started by the Google Maps founders. Google Buzz was from the Gmail team.
Some companies with strong leadership can move toward a singular goal as a big unit, but with Google, working together was such a foreign concept that management had to bribe every individual employee with this bonus plan. I maintain that this is the only time Google has done something together as a company. The rest of the time, it’s individual teams making autonomous decisions.
The core Google+ site was a pretty basic, Facebook-style social networking app, with posts, comments, and „+1″s instead of likes. The one big innovation was the concept of „Circles,“ Google+’s group-sharing mechanic. Instead of everyone being a „friend“ like on Facebook, Google+ had users build several social circle lists, so you could have lists like „Co-workers,“ „Close friends,“ and „Family“ and choose to share various things with each of them since each post had a checkbox sharing UI. This seems like a direct reaction to the outcry of Google Buzz, which shared everything with everybody. For Google+, Google said, „You want sharing options? Here are all the options you could want!“
Google learned very little from Google Buzz when it came to shoving social services inside established apps, though. Over the next few years, Google+ would be built into nearly every Google product. A top navigation banner across Google’s suite of services included your Google+ profile and a live notification count. Google Search results integrated Google+ content, mixing in private data with public search results and letting users „+1“ sites. For some period of time, you couldn’t make a new Gmail account without also making a Google+ profile. Gmail showed Google+ profiles associated with each email sender. The Google Play Store required a Google+ account to leave a review. YouTube required a Google+ account to leave a comment. Android used Google+ for photo backup and contact retrieval. Google Maps integrated reviews and photos from Google+ directly into business pages, and Google Latitude, Google Maps‘ location-sharing service, was killed in favor of Google+ location sharing.
Google+’s greatest sin was the murder of Google Reader, a beloved RSS reader that some people still mourn to this day. Shortly after the service’s death in 2013, Reader’s ex-product manager revealed the team was borged into the Google+ collective sometime in 2010, which led to Reader’s death.
Google+ wasn’t all bad, though. It launched with „instant uploads“ for photos, leading to what would eventually become Google Photos, one of Google’s best new(ish) products.
Google+ Hangouts video chat—The first Hangouts
Besides the social network and borging everything into the Google+ collective, the service’s 2011 launch included a group video chat platform called „Google+ Hangouts.“ Note that this is completely unrelated to the „Google Hangouts“ chat service that would launch in 2013—it was just video chat.
Hangouts video chat had a novel interface that would show thumbnails of users at the bottom of the screen, and it automatically switched the main view to whoever was talking at the time. There was a text chat on the side and a few face-tracking special effects. You could even watch YouTube videos as a group.
While Google+ was not always looked on favorably, Google+ Hangouts was a big hit. Lifehacker called it, „The best free group video chat we’ve seen.“ In 2012, Google added a feature called „Hangouts on air,“ which would broadcast your group conversation on YouTube, basically making it the defacto standard for group conversation podcasts. Broadcasting a group video chat over YouTube was a great collaboration between Google services, so naturally, Google killed the feature in 2019 and never really launched a replacement.
Google+ Hangouts launched with 480p video only, and it needed a browser plugin to work—the same plugin used for Google Talk. In 2013, Hangouts video chat turned on HD 720p video chat when it switched from H.264 to Google’s open source video codec, VP8. In 2014, Google switched over to WebRTC, the „RealTime Communication“ standard for browsers, allowing Google Hangouts to do video chat without a plugin.
Google+ Huddle/Messenger—I guess we should have some kind of DM function
Lifetime: June 28, 2011—August 14, 2013 (2 years, 1 month)
Clients: Android and iOS
Google+’s very first messaging service was „Google Huddle,“ a name that almost no one remembers. That’s because Google Huddle launched with G+ in June 2011, but this service became „Google+ Messenger“ by September 2011. Apparently, there used to be a startup called Huddle that owned the global trademark, and Google quickly agreed to change the name. Whoops.
Google+ Huddle Messenger was an exclusively mobile group messaging service. Google+ always had a „mobile-first“ design, but for some reason, for Google+ Messenger, „mobile-first“ got turned into „mobile-only.“ This was a constant source of frustration for users. Messenger was just the world’s most basic group texting app, and you could invite anyone in your Google+ circles to join.
The service got a front-page promotion on the Google+ Android and iOS apps, but other than that, it never really went anywhere. You could send text—and only text—to a group… and that was it. It made sense to be able to DM people on Google+, but did it make sense for that app to be the totally siloed Google+ Messenger mobile app? Not really. Messenger always felt like an afterthought, and after two years of zero improvements, the feature was killed on August 14, 2013.
A competitor emerges—iMessage has entered the chat
Lifetime: October 12, 2011-Present
Clients: iOS, macOS, WatchOS
And now, a brief history of Apple Messaging services: iMessage. End of article.
Apple launched iMessage along with iOS 5 in October 2011 and brought iMessage to the Mac with the release of OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion the next year. Apple did not release a second, competing messaging app 18 months after the launch of iMessage. In fact, Apple has never launched a competing messaging app in the nine years this service has been around. The full power of the company is behind iMessage with no other distractions.
iMessage quickly became the template for what users wanted from a Google Messaging system. Apple’s service was the SMS client on iOS, but it also pushed people over to the enhanced iMessage service whenever possible. Therefore you could use iMessage to communicate with everyone, no matter what. As Apple was fond of saying at the time: it just worked. iMessage messages synced to your Mac, and eventually, SMS forwarding arrived in 2014, so I guess you can say that’s when the service fully powered-up.
We’ll later see Google acquiesce to the wishes of carriers and put SMS on a pedestal, but Apple was the polar opposite. Cupertino couldn’t care less about the feelings of AT&T et al. Carriers were apparently blindsided by the announcement of iMessage and Apple’s commandeering of SMS. I think it’s funny that this happened the same year AT&T’s iPhone exclusivity ended and Verizon finally got to launch an iPhone. I like to imagine Apple said something like, „Hey carriers, multiple partners means you are all now considerably less valuable to Apple! We’re going to kill SMS. If you don’t like it, there’s the door.“ The truth, though, is that Apple didn’t even feel the carriers were important enough to communicate with them.
We’re not covering the full history of iMessage, but naturally having the full weight of Apple behind the service makes it a very competitive messaging app. It has group chat, end-to-end encryption (for iMessage messages), voice messages, FaceTime video calls, and a million other features.
The big downside to iMessage is that it only works on Apple products, and there’s no website, which is pretty limiting compared to the usual „works with everything“ client smorgasbord from (good) Google products. Just like BBM, Apple views this as a type of lock-in, though. Apple is a hardware company, and you’re supposed to only buy Apple products. This also means Apple sees iMessage as a solvent business since more lock-in means more hardware sales.
The hardware lock-in limits the install base iMessage can have, though, since not everyone wants or can afford Apple hardware. The result is that while iMessage is great, you won’t see it on a „most popular messaging services“ list.
One more competitor—WhatsApp is now worth $22 billion
By 2012, WhatsApp had become one of the world’s most popular messaging apps and was announcing explosive metrics like 10x more messages per day than it had seen the year before. The app doesn’t have much of a presence in the US, but it is extremely popular in India, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. In late 2012, rumors started swirling that the then-independent company was taking acquisition bids. The first bit of smoke was from a TechCrunch report in December 2012, saying that Facebook was sniffing around. WhatsApp shot the rumor down publicly, calling it „not factually accurate.“ Next up was an April 2013 report from DigitalTrends saying Google was negotiating a WhatsApp buyout for $1 billion. WhatsApp shot down this report, too.
It’s hard to believe any of WhatsApp’s denials since just a year later, the company really did end up selling—to Facebook—for a deal that ended up being valued at $22 billion. There was apparently a bidding war going on, and, according to a report from Fortune, Google tapped out at $10 billion. Google’s $10 billion bid would have been the company’s second-largest acquisition ever, after Motorola. Instead, Facebook’s valuation of the messaging market was in a completely different league from Google’s, and it turned the deal into one of the biggest tech acquisitions ever.
WhatsApp was a company that was only five years old at the time and had only 50 employees, yet it ran rings around Google’s messaging efforts (which is a truly embarrassing situation). It’s the perfect example of how harmful Google’s lack of focus can be. From 2009 to 2014, WhatsApp built a messaging app worth $22 billion that boasted 450 million users. From 2009 to 2014, Google launched five different messaging apps.
Pre-Facebook acquisition, WhatsApp also answered the question of, „How do you make money with a messaging service?“ WhatsApp made money through the innovative scheme of charging money—it cost $1 to sign up and $1 a year going forward. WhatsApp originally did this to slow user growth to a manageable amount and cover the cost of sending initial SMS sign-up texts. The founders were apparently shocked to see that $1 didn’t hurt people’s appetite for the app, and it just remained a paid app.
If Google had spent the money to buy WhatsApp, today it would probably be a messaging powerhouse. Instead, the messaging rich got richer, and Facebook was able to control the WhatsApp user base along with its already popular Facebook Messenger service. I think most observers would say Facebook understands social networks and messaging more than Google could ever dream of, and it’s interesting that Facebook treats messaging as a pillar of the company. It’s something the company is willing to spend tens of billions of dollars on, while Google is content to let messaging languish as a series of unstable side projects.
We recently got an amazing bit of commentary on this series of events from Apple, which ended up having some of its internal communication aired out in public thanks to the Epic Games case against the company. When the first „Google’s buying WhatsApp!“ rumors started swirling, Apple’s SVP of Internet Software and Services, Eddy Cue, started pitching the idea of a response to what he saw as a formidable Google/WhatsApp combination. Cue asked the other Apple execs, „Do we want to lose one of the most important apps in a mobile environment to Google?“
Hearing a high-ranking Apple exec call messaging „one of the most important apps“ is, again, strikingly different compared to how Google normally runs messaging. At any point in the last 15 years, messaging has almost always been a complete afterthought in the company’s lineup. Cue wanted to respond to Google/WhatsApp by going really hard and bringing iMessage to Android instead of keeping it the Apple-ecosystem exclusive it is today. Other execs were skeptical of the move, and the plan never happened, but it shows again how Google buying WhatsApp could have been a major turning point for the industry.
Cue (and Facebook) were definitely right about the future of WhatsApp. WhatsApp had 450 million monthly active users at the time of the Facebook purchase, and today the app has grown to over 2 billion users. Google has released another five messaging apps in that amount of time and still doesn’t have a stable or successful messaging platform.
Google Docs Editor Chat (2013)—Just like Gmail chat, but not integrated with anything
Lifetime: June 6, 2006 (Sheets)/April 25, 2013 (Docs and Slides)-Present
Clients: Desktop web only
Let’s take a minor detour from the major messaging apps to talk about Google Docs. Google Docs/Sheets/Slides is a great online tool for collaborating on a document. And often when you’re collectively writing or editing something, you want to have a discussion about it. For that, the Google Docs Editors have a very handy integrated chat service.
Google Docs and Slides got a siloed chat feature in 2013, but if you want to get really technical, Sheets first had chat at launch, all the way back in June 2006, when it was „Google Spreadsheets Labs.“ The other Google office suite app would be more reliant on an in-line comment system for communication at first (does that count as a messaging service?), though, and it wouldn’t get a similar chat feature until seven years later.
This 2013 version of the Google Docs editor chat looked and worked just like Google Talk in Gmail. It actually was Google Talk under the hood, but somehow this wasn’t integrated with Google Talk. Google Docs throws everyone looking at a document into a single group chat, and combined with the fact that some documents could be public, maybe that didn’t jibe with Google Talk’s contact security model.
If Google could have made everything work, Gmail’s use of a real chat service still seems like a more convenient solution. While Google Talk works everywhere and will pop up on your phone, Google Docs Chat is awkwardly only available through the desktop web app, which means you’ll only get a message if you are sitting in front of a computer with that specific document open. I am always first invited to look at a Google Doc through a real messaging service, like Hangouts, and then at some point we have to awkwardly stop talking on Hangouts and start talking to Google Docs just to get the convenience of having everything in a single window. If I leave early and someone asks a late question, that question doesn’t arrive if it’s asked through Google Docs. The weird thing about Docs and Gmail is that the interfaces are nearly identical—pop-up chat boxes that you can type in—but Gmail’s is so much more reliable and convenient thanks to being plugged into a real chat service.
Like we discussed in the Google Talk section, thanks to sharing some back-end functionality with Google Talk, the 2017 shutdown of Google Talk disrupted Docs chat for a bit while it switched to Hangouts. What’s crazy about that timeline is that Google Docs and Slides implemented Chat in 2013, one month before Google Hangouts launched. This capped off months of rumors about Google’s new chat service, so surely the Google Docs team knew Talk was on the way out. Yet, it launched the feature based on Talk technology anyway. Skate to where the puck is going, people!
Google Hangouts (2013)—Google’s greatest messaging service
Lifetime: May 15, 2013 to Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, the web, web Gmail, Windows, Mac, Linux, Chrome OS, Android Wear, Google Glass
Circa 2013, Google was running into a problem—way too many messaging apps. If you were a Google user and wanted to message someone, you could IM them on Google Talk, send an SMS from Android’s texting app, send them an SMS through Google Voice, or fire up Google+ Messenger. Google’s plan to solve the problem of four messaging apps was… to develop a fifth messaging app.
This messaging app would eventually be a great unifier, though. Rumors of Google’s super messaging platform started as early as 2012, with one Google product manager admitting to the media Google was doing „an incredibly poor job“ meeting the needs of messaging users (you don’t say?). By 2013, rumors of an IM project codenamed „Babel“ were regularly popping up, promising a unified Google messaging solution.
At Google I/O 2013, Google announced that Hangouts would turn from a video app into a full-blown messaging service. During the presentation, Google pitched an idea that some messaging services still can’t offer: a client that can do text, photos, and video chat, across all devices, on any OS. On day one, Hangouts was everywhere. There were clients on Android, iOS, and on any desktop via the Gmail website or a standalone Chrome extension (which was indistinguishable from a native app). That last bit worked on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Chrome OS.
Hangouts‘ default list view showed conversations instead of people, mixing in one-to-one chats with group chats. Any photos shared to a room would be saved in a Google+ Photos album, and text history is saved forever (if you want) in Gmail and synced across devices. Hangouts‘ G+ integration meant you could add entire circles to your group chats or add people through a simple checkbox UI. Google Talk pre-dated the invention of Unicode-standard emojis, so Hangouts was Google’s first messaging service to ship with a comprehensive set of the little glyphs. There were read receipts and animated typing indicators, and since this was based on Google Hangouts the video chat app, a single button push could drop everyone into a group video call.
Google Hangouts replaced Google Talk, and the existing user base got an in-place upgrade, a move that should be a benchmark for how serious Google is about any given messaging app. In the future, a thousand Google Messaging apps will rise and fall after the launch of Hangouts, but only one, Google Chat, will be deemed worthy enough to inherit this user base. The desktop version of Gmail swapped out the Google Talk sidebar for a Hangouts sidebar, which was functionally very similar. On Android, Hangouts shipped as an upgrade to Google Talk, and to this day it has the same package name as Google Talk: com.google.android.talk.
The in-place upgrade strategy led to a huge overnight explosion of Google Hangouts users. Android would pass 1 billion activations in a few months, and Google Talk was a preinstalled app since the beginning. All of those still-active Android users would become Google Hangouts users once they checked for app updates. A year earlier, Google announced Gmail was the world’s biggest email service, with 425 million active users. Now all of these people were on Hangouts.
Hangouts also started the death of XMPP messaging for Google’s biggest messaging service. All the federation work that Google started with Google Talk wasn’t making the jump to Hangouts. XMPP clients like Adium and Pidgin could still connect to Hangouts, but they would have to do it with Google credentials. Non-Google users wouldn’t be able to connect to the Hangouts service through a federated server the way they could with Google Talk. Even with Google credentials, XMPP clients on Hangouts were second-class citizens and didn’t get access to many features.
On day one, Hangouts was a bit of a disappointment. Those hoping for a unifying Google messaging service, like the rumors promised, didn’t get one. We started with four services—Google Talk, Android SMS, Google+ Messenger, and Google Voice. And in the immediate aftermath of the Hangouts launch, there were still four services—Hangouts, Android SMS, Google+ Messenger, and Google Voice. Nothing was actually unified. There were also a few missing features compared to Google Talk, like the lack of audio calls and presence indicators. This is the minimum viable product launch strategy in action, and the disappointment is standard. A lot of Google services never recover from the initial negative reaction, but Hangouts did.
The key to overcoming MVP disappointment is to rapidly ship updates, and Hangouts did that. Three months after launch, in August 2013, Google+ Messenger was killed, and the company was down to three messaging apps. October 2013 brought the long-anticipated Hangouts SMS integration on Android. Users could register Hangouts as the default SMS app, finally giving Android users an equivalent to Apple’s iMessage on iOS. That month also brought the release of Android 4.4 KitKat, where there was no default „SMS“ app for Android anymore, there was only Hangouts (so if counting, we’re down to two apps). Google finally delivered on the full promise of Hangouts when, by late 2014 around a year and a half after launch, Hangouts finally added Google Voice support. These features all arrived slower than any Hangouts user would like, but finally, there was one Google messaging app to rule them all.
At this point in 2015, Google Hangouts was at the height of its powers. To date, it’s still the greatest messaging service Google has ever produced. It worked on every platform. It pulled in SMS, Google Voice, and regular Hangouts messages. They were all stored in a seamless, merged history of messages from each contact, and you could switch message delivery systems via an easy drop-down menu. It had most of the features you could want, like video calls and location sharing. And accordingly, by June 2015, the app hit a billion downloads, just on Android. A dedicated Hangouts website, hangouts.google.com, would launch in August.
The death of Hangouts, unified Google messaging, and hope
Hangouts‘ reign as Google’s unified messaging service held together for about one year, basically the entirety of 2015. By the end of December, Google couldn’t help itself and there was already talk of a new Google messaging service that was gearing up to launch, but this time with chatbots (this would eventually be Google Allo). Also in 2015, Hangouts development was already going slower than people would like, and the neglect was starting to be visible.
Google actually caved on an iMessage-style SMS takeover a year earlier, in 2014. The company pushed forward the bold direction of running all SMS messages through Hangouts in the 2013 release of Android 4.4 KitKat, which didn’t include any other SMS app. Carriers complained soon after, and Google immediately sided with carriers over users, shipping what the company described as a „carrier-centric“ SMS app, Google Messenger, in Android 5.0 Lollipop. Around 2014, the iOS/Android duopoly was not set in stone yet, and with Google still fighting Windows Phone 8, it didn’t want to upset carriers and give Microsoft an opening for success. Hangouts‘ SMS support would still hang out for a few more years, but Google proved it didn’t have the stomach to do anything the carriers didn’t enthusiastically approve of.
Hangouts collapsed about as quickly as it was built. Despite the superior functionality on Hangouts, Google started pushing users to switch SMS usage from Hangouts to the „carrier-centric“ Google Messenger SMS app in early 2016. At Google I/O 2016 in May, Google Allo was announced, a new messaging service that would ship with lots of bells and whistles that could have been helpful to Hangouts. By October 2016, Hangouts was no longer a default Android app, having lost its spot to Allo.
Hangouts started being stripped of features, but it was never enough to kill the app. In May 2017, Hangouts was stripped of its SMS functionality. In December 2018, Google announced a formal plan to kill Hangouts and transition users (many of whom have been around since Gtalk) over to yet another Google Messaging app, Google Chat, which was first built as a competition to Slack for G Suite. The Wear OS Hangouts app died in 2019, and location sharing and audio calls were ripped out of Hangouts in 2020.
Yet actually killing Hangouts has proven incredibly difficult for Google—mostly due to how many clients there are and how widespread it is. Despite the late 2018 shutdown announcement, Google hasn’t made a ton of progress in 2019 and 2020 toward replacing Hangouts. The latest timeline said that optional upgrades for consumers to Google Chat will start in 2021, and Google Voice support will die in 2022. There’s still no actual shutdown date.
Google Hangouts was the gold standard of Google Messaging apps, and the app has cast a long, dark shadow over all of Google’s up-and-coming messaging services. From here on out, any complaints about newer Google Messaging services almost always revolved around the quote, „Hangouts did this better.“ If Google could have just taken care of Hangouts over the years and thrown the full weight of the company behind this single messaging service, today it might have an iMessage-fighting, WhatsApp-rivaling message app, and I probably wouldn’t be writing this article. Google just could never throw the full weight of the company behind a single messaging app, and soon Google would move on to a new shiny bauble, leaving Hangouts to rot.
Google Spaces (2016)—A messaging app for Google I/O 2016 attendees
Lifetime: May 16, 2016—March 3, 2017 (8 months)
Platforms: Android, iOS, the Web
Google was really in the messaging mood at Google I/O 2016, where the company launched not one, but two messaging apps. The first was a completely baffling app called „Google Spaces,“ a group messaging service for „small group sharing.“
Spaces were basically chatrooms that you could share stuff to. You could create a room around a certain topic, invite people to it via a URL, and then people could post messages, photos, and links into the room. That was pretty much it. There were apps for the web, Android, and iOS, and the mobile apps would ship you notifications whenever someone posted a new message. Each space room looked identical to a messaging app, while an „activity stream“ would show all the new stuff from all your spaces (that looked like a social network stream).
Spaces‘ only unique feature was the odd choice to have Google Search „built-in.“ Instead of just copying and pasting a link to something from an outside app, Spaces would let you fire up a built-in web browser and navigate around the web. The Spaces web view would pin an easy „share to space“ button at the bottom of the screen, but was copying and pasting a link really that difficult?
Spaces had no real use case and no real appeal. Some takes compared Spaces to Slack, just with extremely limited functionality. Others express bewilderment that spaces looked and worked pretty much exactly like a Google+ Community, but detached from Google+ and without any cross-functionality. A big problem was that there wasn’t any moderation functionality at all, so if anyone got your Spaces URL and decided to be a jerk, there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Looking back, Spaces seemed like it was an app built specifically for Google I/O 2016. For those three days, every Google developer talk had a „Space“ where you could download the slides and see other related media. Google even pitched Spaces this way in the introductory blog post:
We’ll also be experimenting with Spaces this week at Google I/O. We’ve created a space for each session so that developers can connect with each other and Googlers around topics at I/O, and we’ve got a few surprises too. If you’re joining us in person at I/O, make sure you install Spaces on Android or iOS before you arrive!
Once everyone flew back home from Google I/O, the app was basically dead. As far as I can tell, Spaces never got an update or a new feature. Spaces worked for a whole eight months before posting was shut off on March 3, 2017, and Google deleted all the data the next month.
The life and death of Spaces raises an important question: Does anyone at Google do quality control for these things? Is there any gatekeeper at all? Someone that says, „No, this isn’t good enough to put the ‚Google‘ name on?“ Does anyone demand that launching a product comes with some kind of support commitment? It seems like the answer to all these things is „no,“ and that’s really a tough way to run a brand. Some Google divisions are out there building long-term, well-supported products The Right Way™, like Android and Chrome, and they get lumped in with fire-and-forget products like Space and Allo that destroy trust in the Google brand.
As consumers, it’s impossible to tell from the outside if a new product actually has a real commitment at Google, or if it’s just being shoved out the door to fluff up someone’s résumé. There needs to be some kind of standard for a product launch, and Space suggests there isn’t.
Google Allo (2016)—Google’s dead-on-arrival WhatsApp clone
Lifetime: September 21, 2016—March 14, 2019 (2 years, 5 months)
Platforms: Android, iOS, Phone-based web interface
Google lost out on purchasing WhatsApp in 2014. So just over two years later, at Google I/O 2016, Google announced a pair of apps that seemed aimed directly at the one that got away. „Google Allo“ was a straight-up clone of WhatsApp with some minimal Google magic, and Google Duo was a dead-simple „companion“ video app. Allo would go on to be one of the biggest flops in Google Messaging History. After a high-profile announcement on the Google I/O stage, the app launched a few months later in September to terrible reviews. It plummeted off the download charts in just a few months. The problem with cloning WhatsApp is that WhatsApp had a billion users at this point in 2016, and Allo had zero users. To say nothing of the many show-stopping feature deficiencies of Allo, why would anyone that likes WhatsApp-style apps use Google’s WhatsApp clone when actual WhatsApp existed? No one had an answer for that, and Allo was a disaster.
Allo took Google’s strategy of the Minimum Viable Product and turned in less functionality than ever. At launch, Allo only worked on phones. There wasn’t a web app or Chrome extension that would allow desktops and laptops to receive messages, and the support for iOS and Android tablets ranged from terrible to impossible-to-use. The limited device support wasn’t just from a lack of clients. Allo only supported signing in to one device at a time, anyway—if you signed in on device #2, the Allo on device #1 would shut off and stop receiving messages.
All of Allo’s strange client problems were due to it being a WhatsApp clone and to it being targeted at India. Allo didn’t use your Google account at all, and instead relied on your carrier’s phone number for identification. Users would have to make a new Allo account that was powered by the carrier’s SMS system, and it felt totally crazy to have to tell Google—a company that is supposed to know everything about you—basic info like your name and profile picture. Being locked to a SIM card was why Allo only worked on one device. That’s just the way SIM cards work. Browsers also don’t have a SIM card, so you couldn’t log in on a browser.
This account system made sense for WhatsApp, which had no existing account infrastructure or userbase, and a target audience of people that were relatively new to the Internet and don’t have a ton of devices. For Google though, people interested in a new Google product usually already have a Google account. The Google ecosystem is supposed to be a core part of the sales pitch. Allo just threw all of that out the window.
We can get into some of the bells and whistles later, but they really didn’t matter. The reaction to Allo was mostly just disbelief at how astoundingly incomplete it was when it came to the basics. Locking your messages into a single device meant the app wasn’t any more convenient than SMS. Allo didn’t seem like it wasn’t built for a modern, multi-device world. Compared to Hangouts, which worked on everything and supported SMS and Google Voice, Allo seemed like a joke and basically died on arrival.
The hype Allo generated as a Google product launch was enough to generate five million downloads in its first five days. After that, Allo completely stalled and would take three months to hit 10 million downloads. Keep in mind these are just downloads—people trying the app—and don’t represent people who stuck around and became active users, which, for every app, will be far lower than the total downloads. By January, four months after launch, the app fell off the Play Store’s top 500 app list and was completely dead.
Allo shows the ultimate failure of Google’s Minimum Viable Product strategy. MVP works when you have almost no competition, or if you are taking a radically different approach to what’s on the market, but it completely falls on its face when you are just straight-up cloning an established competitor. There’s no reason to use a half-baked WhatsApp clone when regular WhatsApp exists. The whole point of a minimum viable product is to launch, get feedback, and quickly iterate on that feedback, but Allo never did that. The app didn’t deliver any substantial new features quickly.
Google only got around to fixing one of Allo’s day-one, show-stopping problems—the lack of a desktop app—one year after launch, at which point Allo was already dead, buried, and the corpse had rotted away. Even then, the desktop mode wasn’t very good. Authentication was still based on your SIM card, so the desktop app needed you to log in with your phone and then forward that authentication to a browser via a QR code. From there, your phone would forward Allo messages to the web app. The phone was still the key, though. If your phone was missing, or the battery was dead, you couldn’t use Allo on the web.
What Google didn’t seem to understand at the time is that, like we covered in the earlier WhatsApp section, WhatsApp-style apps are not appealing to the whole world. Google tried to push its poor WhatsApp clone in the US, but even regular WhatsApp is not popular in the US. Apps that rely on SMS authentication don’t work well in a multi-device world, and that’s OK. Facebook understands this, so it has the Internet-based Facebook Messenger, which works great on multiple devices, has a website that doesn’t require your phone, and is generally available everywhere. Facebook also has the SMS-based WhatsApp, which is limited in device compatibility but is super easy to join. These two apps in Facebook’s arsenal have divvied up the world; neither app on its own would be popular everywhere.
When even the world’s most successful messaging company can’t make one app to rule the entire world, I don’t understand how one of the worst messaging companies thinks they can crack it.
Allo’s legacy: The Google Assistant
Allo was DOA thanks to the SMS limitations and competition from WhatsApp, but it did have some interesting ideas. There were stickers and adjustable text sizes, and Google Inbox’s machine-generated Smart Replies made the jump to a messaging app. An „incognito mode“ would turn on end-to-end encryption, but it wasn’t on by default.
Allo’s longest-lasting legacy is actually the Google Assistant, which debuted on the service. Allo’s text-only (it never spoke) chatbot version of the Google Assistant in September 2016 pre-dated the launch of the feature on the Google Pixel (October 2016) and the Google Home (November 2016). The Assistant in Allo was just like the Assistant in Google’s voice products today: You could ask it general knowledge questions, the weather, sports scores, or a million other things. Unlike the current voice interfaces, in the Allo version, the Assistant never talked out loud, it just sent you text messages and showed up as a contact in your chat list.
The theoretically fun part about the Google Assistant in Allo was that you could drag it into a group chat, ask it something like „what time is this movie playing?“ and negotiate a time with your group chat. This was all in theory because nobody ever actually used Allo. I really would not mind if the Google Assistant chatbot re-emerged in the next Google IM client.
As an individual chat contact, there wasn’t really a great reason to have a running history with the Google Assistant the way you would with a person, but the individual responses were good and useful. Later Google Assistant interfaces would cut off this running history and start with a fresh answer sheet every time, but the interfaces still look a lot like a messaging app.
Most people could tell Allo was instantly doomed from the terrible download numbers, but Google officially kicked off the beginning of the end for Allo in April 2018, about a year and a half after launch, when it announced it was „pausing“ Allo development. Allo was shut down a year later, in March 2019
Google Allo was just a slow-motion car crash that never sounded like it had a viable product pitch compared to Hangouts. We criticized Allo before it came out as „not making much sense,“ we were thoroughly disappointed when it launched, and we made fun of it when it died. It never stood a chance
Google Duo (2016)—A video companion app for… WhatsApp?
Lifetime: August 16, 2016—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, Phone-based web interface
Google Duo technically launched one month before Allo, but it’s much easier to understand as a footnote to the Google Allo story. There’s almost nothing to say about Duo because it was as basic of a video app as you can get: a simple contact list, a full-screen video feed interface, and not much else. Since, like Allo, it was targeted at India, Google put real effort into making Duo run on as little bandwidth as possible, and Google’s video and networking experts built something with a real market advantage.
This might be giving Google too much benefit of the doubt, but maybe the reason Allo was so bad was because Google didn’t actually need Allo to survive. Google pitched Duo and Allo as „companion apps,“ which was a ridiculous idea at the time. Messaging apps have built-in video functionality. Why would you split video and chat into two different apps? The most likely explanation was WhatsApp.
WhatsApp video chat wouldn’t launch until November 2016, so as a separate app, Duo could not only be a video companion app to Allo, it could also be a video companion app to WhatsApp. Lots of WhatsApp users ended up using Duo with WhatsApp. Not having Allo would mean Google would be sending the strange message of „go use Whatsapp,“ a rival Facebook service, and Duo couldn’t be paired with Hangouts since that already had video chat. Maybe Allo was a marketing crutch in retrospect?
While Allo is dead, Duo lives on. Today, as a default Android app, it has over a billion Play Store downloads. For years, the app required an SMS-powered account, like Google Allo, but sometime at the beginning of 2020, Google started letting people use Duo with only a Google account. All throughout 2020, Duo did its best to keep up with the world’s voracious video demand during the pandemic, increasing from 8 to 12 to 32 video chat members. Duo still couldn’t keep up with Zoom though, which allowed people to video chat without any account at all.
Duo’s survival makes it one of the strangest Google apps out there. It’s part of the Google ecosystem, but it really doesn’t feel like it. And Google Meet is clearly the future of Google’s corporate and consumer video chat roadmap. An August 2020 report from 9to5Google (which also broke the Google Hangouts/Google Chat merger news) says that someday, Google Duo will „merge“ with Google Meet and be shut down. Buckle up, Duo users.
Google (Hangouts) Meet (2017)—Not Zoom
Lifetime: March 9, 2017—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, Web, custom hardware, Google Glass
In March 2017, six months after the launch of Google Allo and Google Duo, Google announced another messaging and video app pair. This time, the releases were aimed at enterprise organizations. „Hangouts Chat“ and „Hangouts Meet“ were branding nightmares because they marked the third and fourth time Google has recycled the „Hangouts“ brand into a completely unrelated product. Don’t confuse Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet with either Google+ Hangouts (the video group chat service that launched with Google+ in 2011) or Google Hangouts (Google’s unified messaging service from 2013). Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet are totally new products, unrelated to anything else. It only took three years after Hangouts Chat and Meet were announced for Google to realize having four separate products called „Hangouts“ was too many. Eventually, the company did rename Hangouts Chat to „Google Chat“ and Hangouts Meet to „Google Meet.“
Hangouts Chat wouldn’t launch until about a year after that March 2017 announcement, but Google Hangouts Meet was launched that month. As usual, there is not a ton to say about a Google video chat app. You can join a room. The UI looks like a bunch of camera feeds. There are a few different layouts, like a Brady Bunch-style grid of squares or a thumbnail view.
Hangouts—and I mean old Hangouts, the 2011 consumer video chat version that was absorbed by the 2013 messaging app—only supported 10 video chatters at once. Hangouts Meet supported 30 people at launch, and today, the paid version of Google Meet caps out a questionably-productive 250 people.
Under the hood, both (old) Hangouts and Google Meet do video chat over WebRTC, so there’s not a huge difference in the actual video calls. The starting UIs were a lot different, though. Google Hangouts worked like a phone call and would ring any online devices. Google Meet is more of a destination; you link to a conference room that you share over some other form of communication, and everyone has to click.
The biggest legacy of Google Meet will probably be that it’s not Zoom, a video conferencing app that absolutely exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic and quickly became a household name. As the pandemic raged across the globe, people were locked down at home and needed a way to communicate for work, school, and fun. Suddenly, everyone in the modern world entered the video chat market, and the world needed to pick a service.
Nine years after the launch of Google+ Hangouts group video chat in 2011, would you believe that Google still wasn’t ready for the COVID video chat era? Google was busy re-re-re-re-launching its video chat solution, so it was caught totally flat-footed when COVID hit. Google Meet just barely got off the ground. Meet was locked behind the GSuite paywall until the very end of April, which was about two months into the work-from-home, remote schooling trend in many areas. Meet was also in the middle of a rebrand from „Google Hangouts Meet“ to „Google Meet,“ which was also happening in April 2020, when Zoom was already hockey-sticking up the daily usage charts. That’s nine years into the group video chat market, and when the golden ticket hit, Google had no product ready and no brand recognition. Instead, Google was just starting to launch, or really re-launch, a product.
Being paywalled meant Google Meet wasn’t viable for the hordes of non-technical users that suddenly needed to roll-their-own work-from-home setup. Any kind of payment, account, or software requirements would need to be repeated for all ~30 people in a meeting, and if you actually wanted to hold a meeting instead of spending all day getting people set up, that meant the meeting software setup needed to be as simple as possible. Zoom was ready. At the start of the pandemic, Zoom had a free tier that worked for most people. Also unlike Google, everyone in a Zoom meeting didn’t need a Zoom account—only the meeting owner needed an account. Everyone else just needed to have the app installed and click a link.
Zoom’s ease-of-setup turned the company into a rocketship that we might never see again in the tech space. By September 2020, the company was posting insane headlines like (not a typo) a 4000% increase in profits during the pandemic and a 2900% increase in users. Zoom became a household name, and today the service is so popular that „Zoom“ is now a verb meaning „to video call someone.“ I’ve definitely heard of people Zooming someone on Skype or Google Meet.
By April 2020, The New York Times was already writing about how Zoom had blown past its established rivals, and the report featured this absolutely brutal anecdote from a Google meeting:
Late last month, Philipp Schindler, Google’s chief business officer, held a videoconference with thousands of the search giant’s employees using Google Meet, three people who attended the call said. During the session, one employee asked why Zoom was reaping the biggest benefits even though Google had long offered Meet.
Mr. Schindler tried placating the engineer’s concerns, the people said. Then his young son stumbled into view of the camera and asked if his father was talking to his co-workers on Zoom. Mr. Schindler tried correcting him, but the boy went on to say how much he and his friends loved using Zoom.
Google’s last user numbers for Meet were announced in April 2020, and the company said its service had 100 million daily meeting participants. It’s definitely not a failure, but that pales in comparison to Zoom’s 300 million daily meeting participants. This weird „daily meeting participants“ metric that Zoom and Google settled on can also count a single user multiple times if they participate in multiple meetings, so it’s inflating both of the services numbers. Microsoft Teams, Microsoft’s Slack and Zoom competitor, has 145 million daily active users (individual people), so it’s safe to say Google is in third place, at least.
To try and catch up, Google is following the old Google+ playbook of „shove it into everything“ and hope users will accept the service. The Gmail app now has a „Google Meet“ (and „Google Chat“) tab at the bottom for some inexplicable reason—it’s basically an ad banner that you can thankfully turn off. The desktop Gmail site also has a Meet button in the sidebar and in the Google Chat widget.
At IO 2021, Google announced plans to stick Google Meet into Google Docs via a pop-up sidebar, like the way text chat works. Google Meet is a default app on Android and Chrome OS devices now and it (along with Zoom) got support on the Google Nest smart displays. In October 2020, Google even launched a Google Meet client for Google Glass Enterprise Edition. (Yes, despite the 2013-ish release and flop of the consumer edition, Google Glass still exists as a business device in 2021.)
Of course, Google Meet is also fully integrated into Google Chat, the companion chat service, but it was even back-ported into Google Hangouts, the 2013 chat service Google Chat is supposed to eventually, someday, maybe start replacing. Both have prominent „Start a meeting“ buttons in the UI these days. Patching Google Meet, an enterprise video meeting solution, into Hangouts, a consumer chat service, is awfully strange. Generating a meeting link for friends and family to join, instead of the old Google Hangouts method of answering a ringing video call, is a lot more awkward in practice.
Google even has companies make „Google Meet Hardware“ now. There is a whole selection of enterprise-grade (that means „obscenely expensive“) display, microphone, and camera packages for wiring up a boardroom with video conference capabilities. On the low-end, we’ve got the Asus Google Meet Starter Kit, which is $1750 and includes a 4K, wide-angle camera to capture the whole room, a combination speaker and microphone box that goes in the middle of the conference table, and (what is seemingly the core of all of these systems) the „Google Meet Compute System.“ That’s essentially an Intel Core i7-powered Chromebox that gets you connected to Google Meet. On the high-end, there’s the „Logitech Tap – Google Meet Large Room Bundle,“ which is $5100 and includes a 10.1-inch touchscreen, a camera, two speakers, a compute box, and two microphone pods for large table coverage. The camera is a swanky 4K pan/tilt/zoom unit that automatically targets and zooms in on the person it detects is talking.
There are also a few all-in-one displays, like the $1450 Acer Chromebase for Google Meet. And Meet is supported on the $5,000 Google Jamboard, a digital whiteboard for Google Docs.
I will give it to Google that (for now at least) Google Meet is well-maintained and constantly gets meaningful updates. There’s screen sharing, broadcasted meetings that support 100,000 GSuite viewers, the ability to record a meeting to Google Drive, and real-time captions. The app works well and is easy to use, it was just late. The status quo had been established, so it will be hard to get people to switch from Zoom.
YouTube Messages (2017)—Yes, this was really a thing
Lifetime: August 7, 2017—September 18, 2019 (2 years, 1 month)
Clients: Android. iOS, the Web
Google’s inability to throw its weight behind a single messaging solution has a ripple effect across the company’s whole ecosystem. Looking back at this point in 2017, we start to see a series of decisions from popular Google apps that all seem to follow the same rationale. They realize messaging is important and look like they would like to plug into a single competitive Google messaging app. But, lacking a stable messaging platform from the rest of Google or a top-down directive to be compatible with whatever the latest client is, these service teams end up building their own bespoke messaging service. These usually aren’t standalone apps but are instead messaging features that are glommed onto random Google apps. They are very awkward since they are never compatible with anything else, and it’s up to the users to manage a new, siloed list of contacts and message history. This is basically „The Google Docs Strategy.“
The first Google app to strike out on its own in the quest for a viable messaging solution was YouTube, which, in 2017, launched a feature called—what else—YouTube Messages! I see a lot of people who try to „invent“ this product as a joke, but it was a real thing that really existed for about two years, starting in 2017. The thought process here was pretty clear: YouTube probably gets a lot of referrals from „Hey did you see this?“ messages between friends, so why not let people do that directly from the site?
On the mobile app, YouTube’s messaging feature lived under a new „Shared“ tab, which was given a premium slot in the bottom bar, next to „Home,“ „Trending,“ „Subscriptions,“ and „Library.“ The Shared tab was exactly a messaging app, showing a list of conversations you and your friends were having around videos, all inside the YouTube app. On desktop, a „Messages“ button lived next to the bell and app buttons and would bring up a pop-up chat window, just like Google Docs and Gmail.
The YouTube Messages input box came with a little „+ video“ button, so you could easily drop videos into your conversation. It looks like you could react to each message with a heart button (not the typical „Like“ button?), too. Contacts for YouTube Messaging could be added through your phone’s contact app or by just sending someone an „invitation link“ through email or some other chat app.
When YouTube announced the messaging feature would be shut down after just two years of operation, it did not give a reason. One theory floated by TechCrunch is that YouTube messenger was inundated with children, who were using the messaging service to skirt parental controls that had been put in place blocking other messaging apps. YouTube is frequently used as a babysitter, so it’s unblocked for kids, and the surprise addition of a messaging app gets to slip through the filter. Backing up this theory are the 1,400+ angry comments on the original shutdown announcement, full of all-caps messages, emojis, and various messages about how YouTube Messaging is „the only way for some people to talk to their friends.“ In 2019, YouTube was in the midst of a big controversy over pedophilia, and YouTube started doing things like shutting down comments on videos featuring minors. Someone at YouTube might have noticed the Messaging feature demographics and decided to give that the axe, too.
Google (Hangouts) Chat (2018)—Part 1: Cloning Slack is actually a good idea
Lifetime: February 28, 2018—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, Web
Hangouts Chat was announced alongside Hangouts Meet in 2017, but it didn’t leave a very limited early access program until February 28, 2018, when it became available exclusively to organizations paying for G Suite (G Suite is now called Google Workspace). Hangouts Chat has had one of the most turbulent rides of Google’s products in its short four years on this Earth. In that time, it has undergone both a big rebranding and what seems like a major pivot in its target audience. Coupled with initial restrictive access requirements, it has been one of Google’s hardest apps to nail down.
Hangouts Chat was announced as an „enterprise-focused communication tool,“ AKA a competitor to Slack. There aren’t a lot of hands-on impressions from the early days of the app, since it was 1) invite-only, 2) locked behind the G Suite paywall, and 3) would need a corporation to subject its entire staff to an „early access“ app. Nobody wanted to try this. Your best bet for an early look is this 9to5Google hands-on article from December 2018, a full nine months after the general G Suite launch. It’s so plain and barren.
The day-one features were support for rooms, DMs, treated messages, bots, and @mentions of usernames. The way Hangouts Chat treats threads is pretty different. Slack is presented as a normal chat room, and then you can reply to any individual message to start a thread. Hangouts Chat makes every message threaded, resulting in a kind of forum-style layout where every message must either be a reply or a new, top-level comment. There’s not even a stationary text input box. There are „reply“ input boxes at the bottom of every thread and a „new thread“ button at the bottom of all that.
Just like Slack, Hangouts Chat supports several chatbots, letting you stream outside info into your chat room for things like Asana, Trello, Google Drive, and more. Hangouts Chat works on iOS, Android, and the web, and while there used to be Electron apps for Windows and Mac (just like Slack), today, desktop is handled by a Progressive Web App (PWA). Both Electron and PWAs present web apps as desktop apps, but Electron packs its own Chromium-based browser, while PWAs use the Chromium browser already on your computer.
I don’t think the execution is there yet, even four years after it was first announced, but the basic idea of a Google version of Slack still sounds fantastic. It’s not often that making an exact copy of a competitor results in a successful product, but here, I think a pixel-for-pixel copy of Slack would do well. Many organizations (Ars Technica included!) pay for both G Suite and Slack, and if a fully featured „Google Slack“ was included in the G Suite price, I think a lot of organizations would switch just to cut down from two bills to one. It has been four years now, though, and Google (Hangouts) Chat still feels like an early access app—not a viable Slack replacement.
If you’re wondering what’s missing from Google Chat compared to Slack, Slack has an entire right-side panel you can set up with critical information, like a running list of your @mentions, a list of files in the chat, or pinned messages. Channels in Slack have topics, which are great for important notifications or getting everyone on a channel on the same page. There are keyword notifications that will ping you any time someone in chat mentions a certain topic, which is great for summoning the Android Defence Force (OK, that’s really just me) in the Ars Technica Slack. If you want to see everything, bird’s-eye views like „All unreads“ or „All DMs“ are for you, as these options will show everything in one big, scrollable list. There’s not just a dark mode, there’s a fully customizable theme system—just type in whatever hex codes you want. You can create and upload your own emoji, even animated ones (at Ars, we have 410 custom emojis and counting). Slack also supports multiple organization workspaces, so here it’s possible to not just be in the Ars Technica Slack, with all the usual people, rooms, and emojis, but also the Conde Nast Slack, with a whole different set of people, rooms, and other settings. There are probably a million other things I’m forgetting about. Slack is a very mature app.
Google Chat is not even close to Slack, but Slack is nearly twice the age of Google Chat. Can Google Chat catch up? Right now it does not seem like Google is giving the app the focus or resources it needs to compete. In the same way that Facebook snapped up WhatsApp for $22 billion in 2014, in December 2020, Slack was acquired by Salesforce for an incredible $27.7 billion. Once again this deal shows that Google’s competitors value a single messaging app to be worth tens of billions of dollars, while Google seems to value messaging at an order of magnitude less than that. Has Google ever invested even a fraction of Slack’s price tag into a single app? Google Chat certainly doesn’t seem like anywhere close to a $27 billion app.
We’ll deal with Google Chat’s big consumer pivot later on, but for now, it’s on to the next project.
Google Maps Messages (2018)—Business messaging, now with the instability of Google
Lifetime: November 14, 2018—Present
Clients: Android, iOS
Customer service happens through Google Maps all the time. You look up a business on the site or app and have a question about what services they offer. Traditionally, you call them up. What if you could do that through instant messaging, though?
When, exactly, you want to start qualifying this as a „Google“ messaging service is up for debate, but it definitely is today. Google officially launched a „Message“ button in Maps in July 2017. At first, just as the „call“ button would launch your phone app, the „Message“ button would launch your SMS app. From there, you could text Google (not the business), which would forward the message on to the business.
In this first version, businesses could sign up for Google’s messaging support one of two ways. First, just give Google an SMS number, and the company could forward all your messages to that number, where you could easily reply. The second option, hilariously, was to receive messages through Google Allo! At this point, the Allo app was about one year into its two-year lifetime, and it apparently powered this feature on Google’s back end. Oh no.
For consumers, the entire way this „Message“ button worked was changed in November 2018, when Google Maps got a full-blown messaging UI. Instead of firing up an SMS app, Google Maps got its own in-house version of the ubiquitous bubble-powered message UI. It also got a message inbox, where you could see all of the messages you’ve ever sent (but, to businesses), just like every other messaging app on Earth. At launch, the message inbox got a premium spot in the slide-out navigation panel, where „Messages“ lived right between „Your contributions“ (reviews and photos) and „Location Sharing.“ Today the slide-out navigation panel is dead, and in the new bottom tab UI, the Messages inbox is in the „Updates“ tab.
With the death of Allo, the back-end of this had to change for businesses, and in 2019 Google’s solution was to bring the entire messaging system in-house. Allo was, of course, removed as an option to receive customer messages, but so was SMS. Now, businesses have to use the „Google My Business“ app for iOS or Android to reply to customers, making Maps Messaging a truly independent Google Messaging Service. For businesses that (understandably) don’t want to communicate to the entire world through a phone, there’s also the Google Business Messages API, a REST API that allows larger companies to plug the system into some kind of customer management app.
All of this messaging stuff is only on the Google Maps app, by the way. You can’t message businesses from the Google Maps website. This made total sense in 2017 when the feature opened up your phone’s SMS app—but most desktops don’t have an SMS app. Now that the entire end-to-end messaging system is a web-based Google service, though, there is no reason you can’t do it from maps.google.com. When will we get yet another Google website with a pop-up chat window?
This entire section is pretty much Google copying Facebook’s business messaging feature, which it has on Facebook Business pages. You know what Facebook business messages use, though? Facebook Messenger! Things are so simple when you have a stable messaging platform.
Google & RCS (2019)—So we found this dusty old messaging standard in a closet…
Lifetime: July 2019—Present
Platforms: Android, Phone-based web interface
When Google announced it was „pausing“ Allo development in 2018, it also announced it had found a hot new fling: Rich Communication Service, or RCS Messaging. RCS was cooked up by the GSM Association in 2008 as an upgrade to SMS. It adds a few really basic features to carrier messaging, like user presence, typing status, read receipts, and location sharing. The way RCS is supposed to work is that Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and all the other carriers upgrade from SMS to RCS, and then all the texting apps on the network get to talk to each other. If you can’t tell from the standard’s 13-year-old origins, the rollout of RCS is best mapped out on a geologic time scale, with carriers occasionally paying lip service to upgrading SMS but doing very little in terms of actual action.
Google calls its RCS rollout „Chat,“ which is extremely confusing given that there is already a „Google Chat“ product that we covered earlier. The Google Chat and Google RCS Chat are not in any way related or compatible. Google’s client of choice for its RCS solution is Google Messages, aka Android’s stock SMS app. The lineage of the Google Messages app dates back to the Android 5.0 Lollipop days in 2014. A year before, Google went „full iMessage“ and killed the Android SMS app in favor of Google Hangouts SMS compatibility. Carriers didn’t like that, and Google quickly caved by building a „Messenger“ SMS app for Android 5.0. Being around for seven years means the Google Messenger app is mature and fully featured—for an SMS app. The app features Google’s smart reply buttons, a very modern UI, and even a web interface for desktops, which forwards messages from your phone to the website through a QR-Code pairing process. There’s also a „video call“ button that connects people through Duo if you both have the app installed.
Google’s fascination with RCS started in 2015 when it acquired Jibe Mobile, a back-end RCS company that was focused on selling RCS server solutions to carriers. With Jibe, Google could offer a full end-to-end RCS solution to carriers: the back-end server solutions from Jibe, and the front-end client work with Android. The carriers, already weary of how much power Google had over them with Android, opted not to turn over their entire messaging stack to Google, and pretty much nothing happened for four years. With the 2018 shutdown of Allo, Google announced it was moving some of the team over to Google Messages, with a renewed focus on RCS.
In October 2019, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all responded by snubbing Google and launching their own RCS alliance, the „Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative (CCMI).“ The carriers talked a big talk saying they would build a „standards-based, interoperable messaging service“ and promised adopting 2008-era messaging features that would deliver „the next generation of messaging.“ The 2020 launch deadline flew by with nothing to show for it, and the whole initiative shut down in 2021 having accomplished absolutely nothing over two years.
The CCMI announcement pushed Google to counter with its own announcement: that it was giving up on carriers and would roll out its own RCS system using the Google Messages app. Not teaming up with the carriers would mean that its RCS solution would exist alongside SMS, and Google would push users to turn on „Chat features“ with a pop-up in Google Messages. This was basically turning RCS, a carrier-made messaging standard, into an over-the-top messaging service. Google first rolled out this system in the UK and France in July 2019, and as of November 2020, it’s available globally.
After the failure of CCMI, the three US carriers (RIP Sprint) have actually given in to Google’s RCS ambitions. T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon are all shipping Google Messages by default on Android. But critically, Apple is anti-RCS.
RCS is bad, and anyone who likes it should feel bad
Like Allo, RCS Messaging is another plan that doesn’t make a ton of sense on paper. RCS is a carrier-controlled messaging standard, and therefore not something Google has a ton of control over. Adding a feature to RCS means getting the entire carrier bureaucracy involved with debating and ratifying the new change. There is no way you can move fast enough to compete with an over-the-top messaging service controlled by a single entity. RCS might be better than SMS, but it will never be good.
RCS has a ton of downsides compared to a real messaging service, but that’s all supposed to be a worthy trade for one benefit: RCS is supposed to replace SMS, so it’s supposed to be universally available on all devices. Will that ever happen, though?
Apple does not want good messaging compatibility with Android. The company said as much in internal communication that was made public thanks to the Epic Games case. Apple’s internal debate showed it viewed iMessage’s high-quality iPhone-to-iPhone communication as „serious lock-in“ and a feature that kept users on iOS. Following this same logic, Apple doesn’t want RCS because that would make messaging with Android easier. In Apple’s view, easier communication with Android users would only help those users leave iOS.
Even if you could snap your fingers and magically roll out RCS to every device, you wouldn’t actually create a competitive messaging solution. Being a standard created in 2008 means RCS has standards from 2008, and it’s lacking things you would want from a modern messaging service, like end-to-end encryption. The Google Messenger strategy strangely insists on using RCS as the base protocol, but the service also keeps trying to build features on top of it that kick in when both users are on Google Messages.
Today, if both users are using Google Messenger, you can have all sorts of interesting features, like end-to-end encryption for 1-1 chats, reaction emojis, and audio messages, which aren’t in the RCS spec. That makes it seem like Google is almost building its own messaging service, but with really unclear compatibility and an ancient RCS protocol, which it has no control over, as the core. What is the point of this? It’s hard to see carriers shipping Google Messages as a default Android app as progress. Google can easily make any app it wants an Android default. Google Talk and Google Hangouts enjoyed default-install status for years. They shipped on every single Android phone, not just the ones from US carriers. These services were also optionally available on iOS, while RCS is not.
RCS also has all the same problems as SMS and Google Allo when it comes to how you should architect a messaging service. RCS will use your carrier-owned phone number as your identity online, instead of an Internet-based account system. Changing Internet identity from a free email account to a paid number owned by a carrier is a terrible and, I would argue, immoral idea. Tying online identity to the ability to continuously pay a phone bill is straight-up discriminatory toward people of lower income. There should not be a risk of losing your online identity if you stop paying your bill for a month or change phone carriers. There’s no upside to phone number identity at all, yet Google keeps doing it.
Carrier-owned identity means your messaging world will be dependent on your smartphone and tied to a single device, instead of being a service that just lives on the Internet and is accessible everywhere. It makes support for multiple devices and form factors difficult. Google does have a Google Messages „website,“ but it’s not a web service—instead it is just a forwarding interface for your phone, which has to be charged up, turned on, and paired to the site. Like with Allo, a QR code scanned by your phone will set up a hacky message-forwarding solution that isn’t as convenient or capable as a native web service. Google is also working on a „device pairing“ feature to ship your SMS/RCS messages to a tablet over what I assume is local networking with your phone. It all just seems like a janky, backward solution compared to simply using a web service. As a phone app, Google Messages isn’t bad, but it has zero independent clients for non-phone form factors.
Google’s RCS plans seem like a disaster. Even if it worked and universally replaced SMS, you’d end up with a bottom-tier messaging service. It’s not even going to work, though.
Google Photos Messages (2019)—You get a messaging feature! And YOU! And you!
Lifetime: December 3, 2019—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, the Web
Who’s starting to see a pattern? With no viable Google messaging platform, I feel like Google just opened the „top apps“ listings and started slapping a messaging feature onto every popular Google service. How soon until we get „Google Search Messaging?“ Hahaha. (Actual answer: May 6, 2021.)
Think about how Facebook works. You upload a cool photo and want to tell your friends so you can post it on your social media feed or message your friends through Facebook Messenger. Easy! This was the original vision for Google Photos, which launched alongside Google+. After the amputation of Google+, it’s now up to Google Photos to try to graft on some of these social features itself. So, in December 2019, Google Photos got a messaging service.
Google Photos Messaging is pretty standard. You can start a group chat thread via the photo „share“ button, where you can send a link or directly message someone else on Google Photos. The „Sharing“ tab at the bottom of the screen is your message inbox, and you can view and reply to any existing chat threads. Photos will send you notifications when new messages come in. This is all supported on the website, too. Would you believe it supports sending pictures?
Google Stadia Messages (2020)—Two great tastes that taste great together
Lifetime: November 16, 2020—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, the Web
Easily the most doomed section of this entire article, even Google Stadia has a messaging service. Google Stadia is (or „was,“ depending on when you’re reading this article) a game-streaming service from Google. Instead of going out and buying a game console, you can stream a video game over the Internet, one frame at a time, from Google’s computerized warehouses to your various devices. After all that time running YouTube, the technology behind Stadia is solid and works fine, provided you have great Internet latency.
Google’s poor execution of Stadia seems like it’s leading to an inevitable execution of Stadia, though. The payment model is totally crazy. Rather than just being „Netflix for games,“ Stadia asks users to buy games at full price, and then you can only play them at 1080p unless you pay another $10-a-month subscription fee to unlock 4K mode. Given Google’s history (see: this entire article you’re reading), a lot of people are hesitant to pay full price for a Google gaming service where the games might disappear any month now.
Despite being a warehouse-scale computer capable of being far more powerful than your average PC, the cloud computers you’re renting from Google aren’t even particularly good. Games like Destiny 2 can only run on the PC equivalent of „medium“ settings, and some of those 4K games you’re paying $10-a-month extra for aren’t actually in 4K—they are upscaledto 4K because Stadia is too slow to run them in native 4K. Google is currently facing a lawsuit over false „4K“ advertising. Google refuses to lean into the good parts of game-streaming technology, which is that a warehouse-scale computer could be way faster than any local computer you could possibly build, if Google would just allocate the resources for it. This is the traditional sales pitch behind cloud computing, after all. Cloud games also have an instant start-up time with no install, which would make them great for game demos.
Couple those issues with Google’s shaky history of keeping services running, and Stadia seems doomed. The dominoes are already falling, in fact. User signups were reportedly „hundreds of thousands“ short of what Google was expecting, and the company closed its in-house development studio before it had time to develop a single game. Stadia’s VP and head of product quit, then the head of engineering quit. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before it’s game over for Stadia.
Wait, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, Stadia has a totally siloed messaging service. The feature rolled out in November 2020, about one year after Stadia’s incredibly bare-bones and underwhelming launch. It seems pretty normal. You can find people by their email address or Stadia gamer tag, provided that their profile is set up to be publicly searchable. It really seems like Stadia should plug into something for contacts, but it can’t even scan your phone contact list, Gmail, or a messaging app to find Stadia players you already know. Instead, you’ve just got to type everything in manually. The truth is, you probably don’t know any Stadia players, but it would be nice to scan your contacts so you could message ‚em.
Google Pay Messages (2021)—We actually learned nothing from Google Allo
Lifetime: March 4, 2021—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS
In 2021, Google completely re-launched Google Pay. It threw out the old codebase that had previously existed first as Google Wallet, then Android Pay, then Google Pay, and the company instead rolled out a completely different „Google Pay“ product it had developed in India. This product was originally called „Google Tez.“ Users making the transition lost their contact list and a lot of functionality, so we basically saw the shutdown of one service called „Google Pay“ and the launch of a completely separate, new service, also called „Google Pay.“
Just like Google Allo, which was also targeted at India initially, the new Google Pay uses your cell carrier’s phone number for your identity, which causes a whole bunch of problems. It takes what used to be a modern, Internet-based account system and throws it out in favor of tying your identity to your phone number, which you don’t control and is tied to your ability to pay a monthly bill. Old Google Pay could be accessed from anywhere you had an Internet connection, but carrier identity systems mean that now, you can only use your smartphone to access the service. As a result, the Google Pay website had to have all the functionality stripped out of it. Carrier-based identity systems might make sense in places where people only have a smartphone, but in the US, it’s very limiting. There’s also no clear upside that I can see. Why not just use a Google account like normal? People who want to use a Google product have a Google account. People who don’t have Google accounts at this point are generally boycotting the entire company.
Google Pay has long had the ability to send money to a friend or contact, and New Google Pay added—you guessed it—messaging! Existing users of old Google Pay had a list of contacts, but with the move to the new Google Pay, all your new contacts have to re-signup for the service again (because New Google Pay is a totally different service from old Google Pay, sigh). Provided you have such friends who made new accounts, you can add them to your Google Pay contacts, and then you’ll see three options: „Pay,“ „Request,“ and „Message.“
Payments are built into a lot of other messaging services, like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and iMessage. Like Google Photos, the plan here is to try to replicate that by glomming a basic messaging service onto Google’s existing product. In reality, this decision just further fragments users across a million different Google messaging apps and features.
Google Assistant Messages (2021)—Text and voice chat, for families?
Lifetime: May 6, 2021—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, smart displays
It’s amazing we don’t get more variety in messaging services given the sheer number of them that Google has launched. But finally, here’s something different: a voice-first messaging system. The Google Assistant has long had a feature called „Broadcast,“ which would blast out a message to every device on the same Wi-Fi network, making it sort of like an intercom system for your Google Nest speakers and smart displays.
In May 2021, Google expanded the Assistant’s Broadcast to work on phones, even when they’re not on your home network. You don’t always want to scream into your phone in public, and you don’t want to blast a broadcast message out of the speakers, so the new interface includes transcriptions of all the incoming voice messages plus a text input field. The interface for this is absolutely a messaging app with a play button below each text message for playback of any audio. At home on a Google smart speaker, a voice can read out any messages you send.
On Android, the Google Assistant is built into the Google Search app, so if anyone is making a „Google Search Messaging“ joke, that already exists! On iOS, messages arrive through a dedicated Google Assistant app. The one big limitation of this messaging service is that it’s for family members only, meaning people you have in your Google Family Group. It’s like a messaging app for a single „Family“ group chat.
Google Phone Messaging (2021)—Isn’t this going a little too far?
Lifetime: June 2021—Present
Every phone has two pretty basic apps: the phone app for phone calls and a messaging app for text messages. For a long time, Google has had an option in the phone app dialer to „Send a message,“ which would forward the typed-in number to your default messaging app. This is fine and normally wouldn’t count for our purposes.
Recently, though, Android Police spotted some versions of the phone app that, for some businesses, will show a „Chat“ button next to the „Call“ button after you’ve typed in a number. Instead of launching a separate messaging app, this would launch a totally new messaging interface, which the „recent apps“ screen identifies as part of Google Play Services. Presumably, this is based on the same kind of business messaging as Google Maps but with a whole new Google Phone client, for some reason. I know better than to ask for messaging unity at this point. Unity is for wimps!
Google Chat, Part 2 (2021)—No wait, this is actually a consumer app now!
Lifetime: June 14, 2021—Present
Platforms: Android, iOS, web, Gmail
We made it—meet the last messaging app on our list. The future of Google Messaging, for now, is Google Chat. We’re cheating a bit by giving Google Chat a second section, but that’s really what it feels like—a complete reboot and pivot of an existing project.
When Google Hangouts Chat was first announced, it was basically pitched as Google’s Slack competitor. Google’s 2017 blog post called the service „a communication tool focused on the way teams work“ that was „purpose-built“ to „help employees succeed.“ Suddenly, at the end of 2018, Google started talking about Hangouts Chat as if it was a consumer chat app.
When I say „suddenly,“ I mean it. Google Chat for consumers got what has to be one of the worst product announcements of all time: it was unveiled in an angry Twitter thread from Hangouts project lead Scott Johnston. Johnston took issue with a 9to5Google report that claimed that Google was shutting down Google Hangouts (the 2013 app), calling it „shoddy reporting“ because it „is only half the story.“ Johnston then dumped the other half out on Twitter: Hangouts, which Johnston was now calling „Hangouts Classic,“ would be transitioned to Google Chat, the enterprise communication app. What in the world?
Google Chat started life as „Google Hangouts Chat.“ So looking back, it might seem like porting over Hangouts users was the plan all along, but that definitely was not communicated by Google. Google Hangouts Chat was an enterprise app that you needed to pay for, and Hangouts was a free consumer chat app. Since this would be the third time a mostly unrelated service was called „Hangouts,“ everyone mostly just rolled their eyes and laughed at Google’s terrible branding. It was unthinkable that the two would merge. It didn’t make any sense.
Three days later, Google got its act together and put out a formal blog post. The post confirmed 9to5’s report that Google Hangouts was shutting down, and it laid out a questionable transition plan, saying, „[Google] Chat and Meet are primarily focused on team collaboration for G Suite customers and at some point will be made available for existing Hangouts users, too.“ So Google Chat is still an enterprise Slack competitor, but you’re going to push your consumer user base over to it anyway? What sense does that make?
Google Hangouts represents Google’s biggest consumer messaging userbase because it has been around forever. While Google messaging apps have grown and been cut down like so many blades of grass over the years, the one throughline is Google Talk users, who were more or less smoothly transitioned from Talk to Google Hangouts. They’ve been clinging onto Google’s wobbly messaging platform for 16 years. It sounds like somebody at Google realized they should do something with these users, and all of a sudden, enterprise Google Chat was drafted as the next app they would be pushed over to.
Starting in late 2020, Google Chat started opening up to free consumer accounts, instead of via the exclusive paywalled Google Workspace. At the time of writing, we’re firmly in the transition period between Google Chat and Google Hangouts. Unlike some of Google’s more calamitous user transitions lately—like moving from old Google Pay to new Google Pay, or from Google Play Music to YouTube Music—it looks like the transition from Google Hangouts to Google Chat will not be a disaster.
Currently, you can use both Hangouts and Google Chat, and your messages and contacts will show up in both apps. Google Chat mostly works and is fully functional, with support for image uploads, group chat, and most other things you could want. Hangouts users are getting gently pushed to Google Chat with a few pop-up messages that have started showing up in the UI. The interface is mostly a drop-in replacement for Google Hangouts, with a lot of the same features just in a more modern client. Google Chat adds @mentions—which are great for group chats—along with emoji reactions to messages and AI-generated smart replies.
The main oddity is Google Chat’s insistence on treating group chat rooms like some separate form of communication instead of listing them alongside your other chats. The interface is awkwardly split up into „Chat“ and „Rooms“ on the web, and these are in different panels. In the phone app, however, they are on totally different screens thanks to the tab interface. It makes chat rooms a pain to use. Another major problem with chat rooms is that they don’t show a preview for the last message in the message list, so they’re very hard to keep up with.
Google Chat’s „Rooms“ and „Chat“ break down is just like Slack’s Channels and DMs, but the difference is that Slack is an organization-wide app, so this breakdown makes a bit more sense. There are channels and people I don’t interact with, but they need to exist for other people. My list of contacts and rooms in Google Chat is personal and a lot smaller than Slack, so just putting everything in a flat list would be a lot easier. Slack also lets you star channels and contacts, giving you a flat list of people and group chats you frequently use all on the same screen. That basic functionality is all I want.
Google Chat is from the Google Workspace team, which also controls Gmail, so Chat is getting deep Gmail integration in an attempt to put the service in the face of as many users as possible. Google Talk and Hangouts have previously been built into gmail.com, just never like this. Google Chat basically gets free run of the place, with two sidebar sections, a pop-up, a status selector in the top-right corner, and a crazy split-screen interface that puts Google Chat on the left side of the screen and Google Docs on the other.
Google Chat also took the unprecedented move of being integrated into the Gmail smartphone app, which I guess is like the modern equivalent of being built into Gmail.com. With Google Chat, the Gmail app has a new tab bar at the bottom that can jump into interfaces for Meet or Chat, and Chat is fully functional with notifications, contacts, and everything else you’d want from a messaging app. You don’t need to have the Google Chat app installed at all, provided you have the Gmail app.
If you have Gmail and Google Chat installed, you’ll be notified twice of any incoming messages, and Gmail actually has a pop-up pointing this out. The pop-up recommends that you turn off notifications for the standalone Google Chat app and exclusively use Gmail for your Google Chatting, which really goes against the normal smartphone interface of individual app icons.
The big thing Google Chat has going for it is that, as a primarily enterprise app within Google Workspace, it has an actual monetization plan. Fifteen years ago, Google Talk stripped the banner ads out of the standard instant messenger interface, and this is the first time since that Google has come up with a monetization replacement plan. Companies pay for Google Workspace, and presumably, some of that Workspace money is being attributed to Google Chat. Will this be enough to keep the project going and finally provide some stability to Google Messaging?
Is anyone in charge at Google?
Even with all this shoddy history, Google doesn’t seem to have learned anything. Today, the confusing, intimidating pile of Google Messaging services is bigger than it has ever been, with Google Chat, Google Messages/RCS, Google Voice/Project Fi, and separate messaging services in Photos, Messages, Pay, Assistant, Stadia, Maps, and Phone. If you’re really an expert, you can probably narrow this list down somewhat, but Google is still simultaneously pushing the enterprise-first-but-also-consumer-messaging app, Google Chat, while also duplicating efforts and muddying its sales pitch to users with RCS on Google Messages. Which services does Google really care about? Which one is the future of the company? It’s hard to say.
The overwhelming impression from Google’s continual messaging chaos is that nobody at the company is really in charge. Some products at Google get mandatory support and hiring (like the advertising division), but others, like messaging, rely on the enthusiasm and availability of individual employees to be continually supported and stay running. Google has previously defended this hands-off management style as „letting a thousand flowers bloom,“ but the company’s messaging situation is more like a yard full of weeds—neglected, embarrassing, and damaging to the company’s reputation.
Apple calls messaging the „most important apps in a mobile environment.“ Facebook and Salesforce invest tens of billions of dollars into messaging, making acquisitions of WhatsApp and Slack some of the biggest deals in the tech industry, ever. Google, on the other hand, can’t be bothered to hold down a stable messaging project. It’s really incredible how out of step Google’s thinking is with its competitors.
If Google treated messaging like most of its competitors do, there would be a top-down mandate that messaging be a pillar of the company alongside Search, Gmail, Chrome, Android, Google Docs, Maps, and YouTube. The messaging strategy wouldn’t change every two years, and Google might actually have a chance to grow a messaging user base. The person that is supposed to be implementing some kind of strategy is Google CEO Sundar Pichai, but his timid management style means nobody is directing Google employees to put in the hard work of building and maintaining a messaging platform. Instead, individual groups at the company are free to fire off half-baked products into the public, and these releases get outsized attention, media coverage, and initial traction thanks to the „Google“ name. From there, they damage trust in the Google brand when services are shut down.
I’ve written before about how Google’s constant product shutdowns damage the brand, and messaging apps are one of the biggest contributors to the growing Google graveyard. Switching to a messaging app requires a big commitment, with the need to get friends and family to switch. Like any social app, messaging apps are dependent on the network effect, and shutting them down every two years is a great way to sabotage any possible user adoption.
Being kicked off a service has a lasting effect on a user. Google treats shutdowns like they are no big deal, but it’s more like burning a bridge with everyone on it who used the service. I think it’s part of the reason public perception of Google has changed over the years. There used to be a lot more Google fans out there—people were optimistic about Google and eager to try any new Google products. If Google managed its products well, today these people might be vocal product advocates, similar to the support companies like Apple or Tesla enjoy. Instead, being a Google enthusiast over the years has meant getting hit frequently by Google shutdowns. Today, I don’t think there are many Google advocates left, and it’s hard to be optimistic about any new product launch.
The Google Talk saga is a case in point. It feels like it’s for a company that doesn’t exist today. When Google Talk launched, there was an assumption that Google would dominate messaging, because back then, Google was seen as a disrupter and a company that put effort behind the new markets it entered. Today, no one assumes Google will be successful in a new market. And it’s because of what we outlined here, a list of so many low-effort projects.
The $3.50 go-anywhere ticket to fight climate change
(CNN) — You wake up in suburban Innsbruck, the snowcapped peaks of the Austrian Tyrol glistening in the distance. After breakfast you hop a tram to Innsbruck Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main railway station and climb aboard an Austrian Railways ÖBB Railjet bound for Vienna.
After more than four hours crossing some of the prettiest scenery in central Europe, you arrive beneath the undulating zig-zagged roof of Wien Hauptbahnhof, from where you head down into the curving tunnels of Südtiroler Platz metro station.
After rumbling through six stops of the city’s U1 metro line, you reach Praterstern, not far from the shores of the Danube River. From there, it’s a short stroll to catch a regional train on the S4 line, heading north a further nine stops to Korneuburg.
Here you climb aboard bus 853 for the final leg, a gentle 20-plus minute trundle through quiet, leafy streets, past compact one-story homes, until it’s time to finally disembark beside the plain clocktower in the village of Enzersfeld.
Give or take the occasional stop for refreshments — perhaps a bosna sausage and a cream-topped Viennese coffee — you’ve been on the go, on public transport, for more than eight hours, clocking up hundreds of miles across bus, rail, tram and metro services.
And how much has this epic ride cost you? Just $3.50 (or €3).
Fifteen years after it was first proposed, Austria’s new Klimaticket, or climate ticket, goes live on October 26. Offering seamless travel across all modes of public transport it is intended to galvanize the Alpine nation’s fight against climate change.
The annual pass, priced at $1,267 (€1,095), works out at just $24 (€21) per week or $3.50 a day. If all goes according to plan, it should encourage people to swap their cars for more climate-friendly forms of getting around.
Surge in demand
Trams and local buses are included in the price of the Klimaticket.
Figurniy Sergey/Adobe Stock
Public transport is already popular in Austria. Its combination of reliable, high-quality, integrated services, simple ticketing and attractive pricing have long made it a winner for commuters and leisure travelers.
Yet even though Austrians travel more kilometers by train every year than everyone in Europe except the Swiss, according to official government figures only 16% of journeys in 2018 were made by public transport.
It’s hoped that Klimaticket will change that by making it much more affordable and convenient, especially for regular users.
The signs are positive, with initial interest in discounted early bird tickets so strong that the booking website www.klimaticket.at immediately crashed.
Spearheading the initiative is Austria’s Green Party „superminister“ Leonore Gewessler, whose responsibilities include climate action, environment, energy, mobility, innovation and technology in the current coalition government.
„I think you can see how happy I am,“ she said after announcing the deal. „This is a big day for the climate and for transport. If this summer has shown us anything, it is that the climate crisis has already arrived with us.“
National passes and discount cards are nothing new in Europe. Switzerland, Austria and Germany, among others, offer monthly travel passes, half-fare cards and other discounts to encourage public transport use.
What makes Austria’s new offer different is its remarkably low price.
Switzerland’s General Abonnement (GA) travelcard offers unlimited use of the Confederation’s entire public transport network, but costs three times as much. A similar annual ticket for buses, trains and metro in the Netherlands is more than $3,500 (€3,066).
Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof railway station.
Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
„One of the things I like about Klimaticket is that it is valid on all modes of public transport, a concept that should be replicated elsewhere as it removes the hassle of having to find and buy multiple tickets,“ says European rail travel expert Andy Brabin.
„It is potentially revolutionary, removing some of the barriers to using public transport and making spontaneous trips much easier as you don’t have to worry about buying tickets, which can often be expensive at short notice for longer journeys.“
No less than $278 million (€240 million) of federal government funding has been agreed to support the new initiative. Ongoing costs are expected to be around $175 million (€150 million) a year. Despite this, the ticket is regarded as central to Austria’s ambition to become climate neutral by 2040 — backed by the European Union’s post-Covid „Green Deal.“
The Austrian government’s 2030 Mobility Master Plan aims to reduce private car use from 70% of total annual kilometers traveled to 54% by 2040, at the same time increasing public transport’s share from 27% to 40% and doubling active travel (walking and cycling) from 3% to 6% of the total.
A passenger on an electric train requires just 55% of the energy used by a battery electric car for the same journey, according to the master plan, meaning big carbon emission cuts can be made with a relatively small percentage shift to more sustainable modes of travel.
Of course, it hasn’t exactly been a smooth journey to get to this point. Klimaticket is the result of 18 months of often-heated negotiations between federal and regional governments, transport organizations and providers.
Even the €3 per day cost is a compromise — the Green Party’s manifesto pledge at the last federal elections was to slash travel costs to just €1 a day within any region and €2 across any two regions.
Vienna’s U-Bahn network is covered by the ticket.
Andrew Michael/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
„Klimaticket is an impressive political achievement'“ says Keith Barrow, editor of UK magazine Today’s Railways Europe, pointing to remarkable levels of cooperation among Austrian provinces and their regional transport authorities.
„The provinces have different politics, different geographies and different priorities. Then there are municipalities and numerous public transport operators — 40 in the Vienna region alone. It is remarkable that all these different parties have managed to find common ground on this issue.“
They very nearly didn’t.
The past two years saw Intense debate and criticism, especially from more rural regions where public transport density and usage is at its lowest. Opposition parties have welcomed the introduction of the ticket but said it was only a first step toward meeting climate goals.
Johannes Margreiter, transport spokesman for the liberal Neos party, said: „Price isn’t the reason why people do not switch to public transport. In many places, the problem is the lack of availability because of poor or absent connections.“
The Vienna region, home to 50% of the country’s population and 60% of its public transport journeys (around 300,000 people commute into Vienna on a normal weekday) was also late to sign up to the scheme, raising fears that the new ticket would be compromised from the outset.
Blueprint for change?
Cross-country trains are also covered.
Matthias Balk/picture alliance/dpa/Getty Images
However, the last-minute deal confirmed Klimaticket’s status as a truly national travel pass.
Its coverage stretches from Bregenz on the shore of Lake Constance in the west to the outskirts of the Slovakian capital Bratislava in the east.
Whatever the reservations, a nationwide ticket removes one of the biggest barriers to using public transport — trying to figure out which tickets are needed for which journeys. That’s particularly the case for foreign visitors.
The framing of the ticket as an environmental initiative has also been important.
It’s hoped it will compel Austrians to think about the environmental impact of how they travel, while making the low-carbon option more accessible and attractive.
But, if successful, does Klimaticket have the potential to become a blueprint for other countries looking to drastically cut transport emissions?
Austria has perhaps succeeded because it’s a relatively small country with a well-funded, cohesive and popular public transport system already in place. Others without this could struggle to emulate its achievement.
„There are two things you need before you can launch into an initiative like this — network density and service frequency,“ says railway magazine editor Barrow.
„Austria has invested heavily in building capacity on its main rail corridors so it can accommodate more fast inter-city services as well as regular-interval regional services, frequent S-Bahn networks in city regions and increasing volumes of freight.
„It has the infrastructure it needs to accommodate more passengers, or it is in the process of constructing it.“
Germany’s transport network could be a candidate for a similar scheme.
Could similar initiatives happen elsewhere?
Barrow says the Netherlands could be a contender, benefiting from an already interlinked public transport network that operates with high frequency. The densely populated country faces a pressing need to find solutions to transport challenges.
Germany is also in the frame, he adds.
„I think there is an appetite for something like Klimaticket in Germany. The Greens‘ success in the recent federal election might spur them to emulate their counterparts in Austria and push for a national annual public transport pass.“
The problem in Germany, say Barrow, is state-level variations in commitment to public transport. Bavaria, the south, is relatively pro-road whereas neighboring Baden-Württemberg has been actively improving public transport for a long time.
And will it succeed in Austria?
The country certainly has the requisite core rail network and urban transport systems around major cities such as Vienna and Graz. These have benefited from a policy of continuous development, broadly supported across the political spectrum.
At the periphery of the system the story is less positive.
Decades of rural rail closures have cut many smaller towns off from the national network — but on secondary lines that remain, there now seems to be more willingness to improve infrastructure, enhance timetables and replace polluting diesel trains with electric, battery or hydrogen trains.
Klimaticket could boost improvement prospects still further, especially when coupled with targeted investment in feeder bus routes and active mobility. Green campaigners have called for the offer to be expanded to include cycle hire and e-scooter rental, providing a wider range of seamless travel options.
Klimaticket is just one plank of Austria’s plan to meet its carbon reduction targets, but if it delivers positive results quickly, as its supporters believe it will, pressure could grow to develop similar products in other countries around the world that make mobility without a car easier and more cost effective.
The Apple Watch Series 7 might just be the perfect smartwatch. Sorry to give the game away this early, but there are no secrets or surprises here — and that’s a good thing. A smartwatch should be an extension of your smartphone, yet also needs to be able to function reliably and usefully on its own. It should provide extensive, motivational, and informative health and activity tracking without alienating those who aren’t athletes. It should look great, and be easily customized to match your mood, style, and environment. It shouldn’t require constant supervision or have complex or gimmicky features that overshadow basic everyday usefulness. New models need to also improve over the previous version, so everyone can consider upgrading if they want.
The Apple Watch Series 7 delivers all this and more. Let’s talk about it.
It’s pretty much impossible to tell the difference between the Series 7 and the Series 6 just by glancing at them. The 1mm increase in case size — 45mm and 41mm for the Series 7 versus 44mm and 40mm for the Series 6 — is only clear if you get a tape measure out, and the slightly greater curve at each edge is only evident if you put the two watches next to each other and look really closely. The speaker on the left-hand side of the case is a single slit rather than the dual slit on the Series 6, but that’s about as obvious as the visual alterations get.
What you do notice are the much smaller 1.7mm bezels, down from 3mm on the Series 6, and the increase in viewing area. Apple says there’s 20% more screen area visible compared to the Series 6 and the Watch SE, and 50% more than the Apple Watch Series 3. The Ion-X glass over the screen has a contoured edge, so the screen appears to curve toward the case, just like a curved screen on a smartphone.
The version in our photos is an aluminum model in Midnight, which is black in color with a hint of blue, and I chose it as it’s easier to match with more strap options, unlike the blue or green versions. If you have a strap collection from an existing Apple Watch, they will all fit with the Series 7 perfectly, just in case you are worried the 1mm size increase would make them look odd.
It would be easy to chastise Apple for not changing the design much, but it hasn’t done so because it doesn’t need to. The Series 7 looks fantastic, and the Apple Watch has become a style icon, in my opinion. The gentle curve of the case makes it very comfortable to wear, regardless of which strap you choose, and it’s really light at 38.8 grams without the strap, meaning you can wear it day and night.
While this is also true for some fitness bands, the difference is that the Apple Watch looks good, and it’s incredibly easy to change the complete look of it if you get bored. Apple’s watch faces have evolved a lot, especially in WatchOS 7 and WatchOS 8, becoming classier and more visually exciting, rather than just adding complications. Build a small collection of straps and bracelets, and the Apple Watch is ready to go with anything you’re wearing, and suited to any time of the day.
It’s this versatility that makes the Apple Watch such a joy to own. It turns it from a piece of technology to something that’s truly yours. No other smartwatch provides the ease of customization in the same way. You can even just choose the wear-and-forget Sport Loop strap, which is one of the best basic straps you can get, and be set for the duration of your ownership.
The Apple Watch Series 7 doesn’t wear any differently from the Series 5 or Series 6 Watch, and that’s fine. It’s still the most comfortable, most personalized, easiest to live with smartwatch you can buy.
If the slimmer bezel hasn’t changed the design much, has it changed the screen? Yes, it has, but don’t expect coming from the Series 6 to feel like picking up a Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. The increase is much more subtle, but Apple has emphasized the difference through WatchOS 8 by using new watch faces like Contour, offering larger fonts, and making better use of the additional space.
Buttons are larger and easier to quickly locate, wider notification cards include just that little bit more information, more text fits on screen at once, and you can see more at one time. Swipe up to show the quick settings, and activating a Focus mode takes a less precise action, making it faster than before. But perhaps the best indication of how much screen the Series 7 has gained comes from the three additional font sizes available on it compared to older models.
Apple says the screen is brighter indoors, but I haven’t noticed any difference. However, this may be because I never have any issue reading what’s on it, regardless of whether I’m in sunlight or darkness, or whether it’s showing the main screen or the excellent always-on watch faces. It’s sharp and colorful, and isn’t absurdly reflective either. The Ion-X glass over the top is also tougher and more resistant to cracks than before, but to get the reportedly more durable sapphire glass displays, you have to buy the stainless steel or titanium models.
The smaller bezels make the Series 7 look more modern, too, even when put next to the Series 6, a smartwatch that can hardly be described as old. If you’re coming from a Series 3 watch, the Series 7’s smaller bezels and larger viewing area will transform the experience for you. In this case, the Series 7 is a huge upgrade. I’ve used a Series 6 for the last year, and the additional screen real estate was obvious the moment I started using the Series 7.
Health and activity tracking
The Apple Watch Series 7 takes your heart rate and electrocardiogram (ECG) readings, measures blood oxygen levels, warns of heart rate irregularities, sends out an emergency alert if you fall down, reminds you to start a workout if it notices you’re not moving or cycling, tracks your swimming activity, and automatically starts a timer when you wash your hands. I’m only scratching the surface here, as I haven’t mentioned sleep tracking, dozens of workout plans, Apple’s Fitness+ service, noise alerts, and the mindfulness app yet.
The health and fitness tracking is comprehensive, detailed, accurate, and in my case, total overkill for my needs — and that’s a good thing. It means should I decide to do more, the Watch will be ready without the need to upgrade. The Series 7 tracks my walks, sleep, and workouts at home without a problem, and it’s so fast and simple to set it in motion I don’t even need to go to the workout app sometimes, as the Watch recognizes I’m doing more than usual and suggests a tracking mode. Or I use the app selection mode by pressing the lower button on the Watch to leap straight into the workout app. It takes seconds, which as a casual exerciser, is what I want.
I also appreciate the “silent” features. Heart rate, blood oxygen, and even noise are all monitored in the background, so should something change, it will let me know. I don’t have to do anything even at setup, as most of these features are active by default. Apple’s Activity Rings give me a clear indicator of my daily activity, and are suitably motivational, with reminders to move around and animated screens when I achieve a goal.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Data is presented in Apple’s Health app. It shows helpful trends that inform about whether you’re doing more or less than usual, overviews of your most recent workouts (including GPS maps), and offers the option to dig deeper. I love the All Health Data list view, which instantly tells you the most up-to-date information, and combines it with historical data, too. Tap each section to see a more detailed breakdown of the data. It’s superbly laid out, very informative, and extremely simple to digest.
Although it’s all very attractively presented with bright colors and neat graphs, the app can feel dense and complicated. But it highlights just how much ability the Watch has and how it can benefit those who are far more focused on fitness than I am. I’d quite like the Health and the Fitness app to be incorporated into one, as I often forget about the Fitness app, which contains further information on daily activities.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
The Apple Watch Series 7 is as much of a fitness partner as you want it to be, and it performs just as well regardless of the amount of effort you put into exercise. It has all the ability, data, and motivation you want — or as little as you want — all without irritating messages about pushing yourself to the limit either on the Watch or in the marketing. This ties in with the design and customization, too, as it does all this while looking as sporty or not sporty as you want. It’s excellent.
It’s fast, responsive, and feature-packed. I receive notifications from my iPhone 13 Pro without a problem, and I can respond to most of them directly from the Watch. Most messages can be replied to using the keyboard, which has a new QuickType swipe-typing feature. It’s surprisingly accurate and makes it much quicker to type on the Watch’s small screen. I also like how a pop-up will appear on the iPhone, letting you enter text on the phone rather than on the Watch, all without finding the relevant message. Not all messages have such deep interaction. For example, tweets can only be liked or retweeted, and Outlook emails can’t be replied to on your wrist, only flagged or marked as read.
It’s still the most comfortable, most personalized, easiest to live with smartwatch you can buy.
The Watch Series 7’s processor may be called the S7, but it’s only a name change, and it has the same performance as the S6 inside the Series 6. What this does mean is it offers 20% more performance than the S5 chip inside the Apple Watch SE, which Apple still sells alongside the new Series 7. You can buy the Series 7 with a cellular connection, and provided you pay extra on your monthly carrier plan, the Watch will make and receive calls and receive messages even when not connected to your phone.
Using WatchOS 8 on the Apple Watch Series 6 and Series 7, I have not had any problems with responsiveness or apps at all. During the setup of the Series 7, I did have trouble using the Set up as a new watch option, but it activated without issue when I chose the Restore from a backup option. It’s the first time I have encountered this, and suspect it may have been to do with setting up the Series 7 on launch day and the associated server delays.
I’ve worn the Apple Watch Series 7 for 24 hours a day for the last week, and when I wake up in the morning after tracking my sleep, the Watch has consistently still had between 20% and 30% power remaining, depending on whether I tracked a workout the day before. This means a single, full day’s use is no issue. With 30% remaining, it has continued on until the end of a workday if I didn’t track a workout. Alternatively, if you don’t activate sleep tracking and you turn it off overnight, two days or even more will be achievable.
The Watch Series 7 has a new charger, complete with fast charging, and is easily recognizable compared to the older versions due to the silver case. It provides an 80% charge in 45 minutes according to Apple, but when plugged into the Apple fast charger, it exceeds this, getting to about 88% in that time. It reaches 100% in an hour. There is also has a handy feature where an eight-minute charge will return eight hours of sleep tracking.
If you use an old charger with the Series 7, then it charges at normal speed, which is understandable but unfortunate for anyone who has splurged on a stand like the Belkin 3-in-1 MagSafe charger, as you won’t get the benefit from the new charger’s speed increase.
Price and availability
The Apple Watch Series 7 starts at $399 for the 41mm model and $429 for the 45mm model. Add $100 for the GPS + Cellular version, and even more depending on the strap you select. For example, if you want the Product RED Braided Solo Loop strap in our photos, prices start at $449.
In the U.K., the 41mm Apple Watch Series 7 in aluminum starts at 369 pounds, and the 45mm model from 399 pounds. Prices increase depending on the strap you choose, and you must add 100 pounds to the price if you want the GPS + Cellular model.
The Series 7 looks fantastic, and the Apple Watch has become a style icon, in my opinion.
Outside of the standard Apple Watch models, you can buy special Nike versions, which cost the same but come with Nike-branded straps and exclusive watch faces. You can also pay more for the Apple Watch Series 7 to get a stainless steel case and sapphire crystal over the screen. Prices start at $699 or 649 pounds. The titanium Apple Watch Edition starts at $799 or 699 pounds, and the Apple Watch Hermés starts at $1,229 or 1,179 pounds. Functionality and specification is identical across the range, so all these offer only material and strap differences.
Smaller bezels and a 1mm case size difference have made a big impact on the Apple Watch Series 7, increasing its attractiveness and overall visual appeal. Faster charging and that helpful eight-minute zap for overnight use means the relatively short battery life is much less of an issue, and you can use and enjoy the Watch 24 hours a day. WatchOS 8 is reliable and easy to use, the health tracking remains second-to-none even without any hardware changes, and the massive amount of customization makes it fun to own.
It’s everything you want a smartwatch to be, as it perfectly integrates with the iPhone, yet has enough power to be used on its own if you choose, and never feels superfluous due to a lack of features or poor app support. The Apple Watch Series 7 has improved over the Series 6, even managing to feel like a worthwhile upgrade to last year’s model for those who don’t mind spending the money. It’s also worth mentioning that Apple has not changed the price either, keeping it the same for the last few generations despite hardware and software improvements.
The Apple Watch Series 7 does everything I want, and I’m very aware it can do a whole lot more, making it feel like a safe purchase even for those who are just beginning with a smartwatch. The fact that it’s not difficult to use also makes it great for newcomers, and the two sizes and various versions means you’ll find one that suits you. It’s really superb, and I struggle to find a reason not to recommend it wholeheartedly.
Is there a better alternative?
It’s not often I get to say this, but if you own an iPhone and want a smartwatch, there is no better alternative to the Apple Watch. There’s usually some alternative, but in this case, by buying an Apple Watch Series 7, you’re getting the best available option. This year, the Apple Watch SE is less of a good deal than it was in 2020 due to the lack of always-on screen, larger bezel, standard charging speed, and less capable health tracking.
The Apple Watch Series 7 has an IP6X dust-resistance rating, water resistance up to 50 meters, is swimproof, and has stronger, more crack-resistant glass over the screen. Straps are easily and cheaply replaced, should they get broken or dirty. Apple should support the Watch with new software updates for up to five years. Keeping the Apple Watch Series 7 for five years may be a stretch if you’re wating to keep up with tech trends, but for everyone else, it’s perfectly achievable given the Series 7’s ability, performance, and toughness.
Should you buy one?
Yes. It’s not only the best smartwatch for your iPhone, it’s the best smartwatch available today.
By multiple standards, the company is doing better than even an optimist would have predicted in 2011. But it still has a Steve Jobs-shaped hole in it.
Fans use smartphones to photograph a makeshift shrine in London after Steve Jobs’s death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 56 on October 5, 2011. [
Ten years ago today, I happened to be attending a trade show in Tokyo when a tech journalist friend back in California phoned to ask if I’d heard Steve Jobs had died. I hadn’t: Apple had justmade the sad announcement and it hadn’t yet overtaken Twitter, news sites, and—it would soon seem—every other form of media.
Rather than continuing with my trip as planned, I spent the rest of it writing multiple pieces about Apple’s cofounder and his impact on his company and the world. Throughout, I did my best to avoid coming to any snap judgments about what an Apple without Jobs would look like. Even a year after Jobs’s death, I marked its anniversary by arguing that it was too soon to judge how Apple was faring, in part because the company was still releasing products that he’d had a hand in shaping.
Nine years after that, I have no excuses. Tim Cook has been Apple’s CEO for more than a fifth of the company’s history. Comparing his Apple to Steve Jobs’s legacy remains tricky, since we’ll never know how Jobs would have handled the same decisions Cook has made. But since it’s no longer premature to ponder such matters, I’m going to give it a shot. And I’m going to divide my musings into four broad categories.
But even Altucher didn’t talk about Apple becoming the first company to reach a valuation of $2 trillion, a feat it achieved less than nine years after Jobs’s death. Apple is now worth more than six times what it was on October 5, 2011. As the smartphone market matured, Cook turned out to be one of the best CEOs in the history of business, adroitly keeping Apple growing through strategies such as bolstering its services portfolio.
From a Wall Street perspective, the unanswerable question that feels most pertinent is not “would Apple have been more successful if Steve Jobs was still CEO?” Instead, it’s more like “would an Apple run by Steve Jobs have matched Tim Cook’s history-making financial results?”
The next big thing(s)
For the first year or two of Tim Cook’s tenure as Apple CEO, some pundits helpfully explained that Jobs had unveiled an epoch-shifting gadget every couple of years—and that Cook would be a failure if he didn’t continue that pace. As I wrote back then, this was silly. For one thing, even Jobs didn’t change history with anything like the frequency that people thought he did. For another, Cook deserved more than two years to prove how much vision Apple would have under his leadership.
Enough time has passed that it’s now fair to compare Cook’s biggest products to Jobs landmarks such as the Apple II, Mac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad. Apples biggest all-new product since 2011 has unquestionably been the Apple Watch, which is now worn by 100 million people, including a third of iPhone users in the U.S. Judged purely as a revenue generator, the smartwatch deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Jobs’s signature products: It’s a bigger business than the iPod was at its height.
The other obvious megahit of the Cook years are AirPods, which defined the modern wireless-earbud category and still lead it; they’re as iconic as wired iPod earbuds once were—and vastly more profitable for Apple.
Any Apple rival would salivate at the prospect of creating a business as successful as the Apple Watch and AirPods have been. Still, neither is culturally transformative in the way that Jobs’s biggest successes were. Rather than changing everything about our relationship with technology in one or two fell swoops, the Apple Watch has done well because Apple has patiently took something that initially felt like a tiny computer for your wrist and refocused it on fitness and health. Meanwhile, AirPods, delightful though they are, are ultimately an accessory, at least for the time being. And there’s a limit to how much an accessory can reshape human life.
But if Apple hasn’t managed to shift any epochs lately, that’s understandable. Neither has anyone else in the consumer electronics business:
On the smartphone front, pricey folding phones from Samsung and Microsoft cater to a niche that doesn’t feel like it’s about to explode.
Amazon’s Alexa has done more than Apple’s Siri to propel AI-infused voice interfaces to prominence, but it hasn’t rendered smartphones any less important.
Thanks to Facebook’s Oculus, virtual reality has made great strides, but a heck of a lot of people still haven’t strapped on a headset even once.
On the consumer hardware front, augmented reality has inspired some notoriousflops; its successes, such as Pokémon Go and Google Lens, have gained traction by leveraging smartphones rather than replacing them.
From Facebook and Twitter to TikTok, social media has changed the world over the past decade, but it feels less like an invention than a virus that got out of control.
You might make the case that Elon Musk’s Tesla has had an Apple-like impact on the automotive industry, but the electrification of passenger vehicles remains a story in progress.
It’s even clearer in retrospect than it was during Jobs’s life that it might be impossible to top the iPhone by coming up with an even more popular, profitable gizmo. Had Jobs gotten another decade as Apple CEO, he might have chosen to pour most of the company’s energy into the evolution and expansion of the iPhone and iPad—just as Cook’s Apple has done. Incremental improvements to existing products, after all, were just as key to Jobs’s success as the great leaps forward.
One other thing: All evidence suggests that Apple hasn’t given up on trying to reinvent additional product categories. It’s just tackling ones that are hyper-ambitious even by its own standards—such as VR/AR headsets and cars—and is happy to chip away in private rather than hype stuff that won’t appear for years. Which means that it’s still too early to declare that we’ve seen the last history-making new Apple product.
The little things
Steve Jobs was not an inventor so much as an editor. None of the products he’s remembered for were the first in their category, and every one of them bulged with work done by people who had skills that Jobs did not possess. But he had a near-superhuman ability to know what to put into a product and what to leave out. He could make the seams between hardware and software nearly vanish. He made hard decisions that were often questioned, but almost always prescient and—eventually—widely imitated.
In all these cases, I’m not going to say “Steve Jobs would never have allowed that,” because . . . well, he might have. His own mistakes wereoftendoozies. But present-day Apple does feel like it’s lost the final polish that Jobs gave almost everything.
We didn’t just lose Steve Jobs the business executive, strategic thinker, and product polisher 10 years ago. We lost the guy who may have been the single most memorable personality the consumer-tech business ever produced:
The Steve Jobs who was a direct link to the roots of the PC industry, having cofounded Apple in 1976 at age 21 with Steve Wozniak. (Yes, Jobs and Woz really did sell a VW van and HP calculator, respectively, to fund their startup.)
When most of us envision Jobs, what we see is the man onstage at the product presentations so inextricably associated with him that they were known as “Stevenotes.” Even if you steadfastly refused to get sucked into his reality distortion field, these demos were remarkably compelling. It wasn’t just because he was one of the best explainers the tech industry has ever seen, or even because he occasionally did reveal stuff that blew your socks off. Up there on stage—often by himself—he came off as human, even vulnerable, in a way that few business executives would choose to make themselves. That was true all along, and even more so in his final years as each appearance was an opportunity for public speculation about his health.
For a few years after Jobs’s death, Apple product launches were overseen by Cook and other longtime Jobs associates, and felt like Stevenotes that had been stripped of their most important ingredient. As people noted with increasing frequency that the same handful of white guys represented Apple at every event, the company began to switch things up, calling on a larger, more diverse group of Apple employees to divvy up the presenting. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to virtual events, the company ventured even further away from the Stevenote approach. Even if it returns to live product launches in 2022, it seems likely that high-production-value canned videos will play a larger part than when almost everything that mattered was happening in front of a live audience.
Steve Jobs is in no danger of being forgotten. But more and more, when Apple does things that he wouldn’t have, it’s not a sign that the company has lost its way. Instead, it’s evidence that Apple is still restlessly looking forward rather than obsessing over its past. And what could be more Steve Jobs-like than that?
Clarification, Sept. 8, 2021: A previous version of this story caused unintended confusion about the extent to which WhatsApp examines its users’ messages and whether it breaks the encryption that keeps the exchanges secret. We’ve altered language in the story to make clear that the company examines only messages from threads that have been reported by users as possibly abusive. It does not break end-to-end encryption.
When Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new “privacy-focused vision” for Facebook in March 2019, he cited the company’s global messaging service, WhatsApp, as a model. Acknowledging that “we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services,” the Facebook CEO wrote that “I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about. We plan to build this the way we’ve developed WhatsApp.”
Zuckerberg’s vision centered on WhatsApp’s signature feature, which he said the company was planning to apply to Instagram and Facebook Messenger: end-to-end encryption, which converts all messages into an unreadable format that is only unlocked when they reach their intended destinations. WhatsApp messages are so secure, he said, that nobody else — not even the company — can read a word. As Zuckerberg had put it earlier, in testimony to the U.S. Senate in 2018, “We don’t see any of the content in WhatsApp.”
WhatsApp emphasizes this point so consistently that a flag with a similar assurance automatically appears on-screen before users send messages: “No one outside of this chat, not even WhatsApp, can read or listen to them.”
Given those sweeping assurances, you might be surprised to learn that WhatsApp has more than 1,000 contract workers filling floors of office buildings in Austin, Texas, Dublin and Singapore. Seated at computers in pods organized by work assignments, these hourly workers use special Facebook software to sift through millions of private messages, images and videos. They pass judgment on whatever flashes on their screen — claims of everything from fraud or spam to child porn and potential terrorist plotting — typically in less than a minute.
The workers have access to only a subset of WhatsApp messages — those flagged by users and automatically forwarded to the company as possibly abusive. The review is one element in a broader monitoring operation in which the company also reviews material that is not encrypted, including data about the sender and their account.
Policing users while assuring them that their privacy is sacrosanct makes for an awkward mission at WhatsApp. A 49-slide internal company marketing presentation from December, obtained by ProPublica, emphasizes the “fierce” promotion of WhatsApp’s “privacy narrative.” It compares its “brand character” to “the Immigrant Mother” and displays a photo of Malala Yousafzai, who survived a shooting by the Taliban and became a Nobel Peace Prize winner, in a slide titled “Brand tone parameters.” The presentation does not mention the company’s content moderation efforts.
WhatsApp’s director of communications, Carl Woog, acknowledged that teams of contractors in Austin and elsewhere review WhatsApp messages to identify and remove “the worst” abusers. But Woog told ProPublica that the company does not consider this work to be content moderation, saying: “We actually don’t typically use the term for WhatsApp.” The company declined to make executives available for interviews for this article, but responded to questions with written comments. “WhatsApp is a lifeline for millions of people around the world,” the company said. “The decisions we make around how we build our app are focused around the privacy of our users, maintaining a high degree of reliability and preventing abuse.”
WhatsApp’s denial that it moderates content is noticeably different from what Facebook Inc. says about WhatsApp’s corporate siblings, Instagram and Facebook. The company has said that some 15,000 moderators examine content on Facebook and Instagram, neither of which is encrypted. It releases quarterly transparency reports that detail how many accounts Facebook and Instagram have “actioned” for various categories of abusive content. There is no such report for WhatsApp.
Deploying an army of content reviewers is just one of the ways that Facebook Inc. has compromised the privacy of WhatsApp users. Together, the company’s actions have left WhatsApp — the largest messaging app in the world, with two billion users — far less private than its users likely understand or expect. A ProPublica investigation, drawing on data, documents and dozens of interviews with current and former employees and contractors, reveals how, since purchasing WhatsApp in 2014, Facebook has quietly undermined its sweeping security assurances in multiple ways. (Twoarticles this summer noted the existence of WhatsApp’s moderators but focused on their working conditions and pay rather than their effect on users’ privacy. This article is the first to reveal the details and extent of the company’s ability to scrutinize messages and user data — and to examine what the company does with that information.)
Many of the assertions by content moderators working for WhatsApp are echoed by a confidential whistleblower complaint filed last year with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The complaint, which ProPublica obtained, details WhatsApp’s extensive use of outside contractors, artificial intelligence systems and account information to examine user messages, images and videos. It alleges that the company’s claims of protecting users’ privacy are false. “We haven’t seen this complaint,” the company spokesperson said. The SEC has taken no public action on it; an agency spokesperson declined to comment.
Facebook Inc. has also downplayed how much data it collects from WhatsApp users, what it does with it and how much it shares with law enforcement authorities. For example, WhatsApp shares metadata, unencrypted records that can reveal a lot about a user’s activity, with law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Justice. Some rivals, such as Signal, intentionally gather much less metadata to avoid incursions on its users’ privacy, and thus share far less with law enforcement. (“WhatsApp responds to valid legal requests,” the company spokesperson said, “including orders that require us to provide on a real-time going forward basis who a specific person is messaging.”)
WhatsApp user data, ProPublica has learned, helped prosecutors build a high-profile case against a Treasury Department employee who leaked confidential documents to BuzzFeed News that exposed how dirty money flows through U.S. banks.
Like other social media and communications platforms, WhatsApp is caught between users who expect privacy and law enforcement entities that effectively demand the opposite: that WhatsApp turn over information that will help combat crime and online abuse. WhatsApp has responded to this dilemma by asserting that it’s no dilemma at all. “I think we absolutely can have security and safety for people through end-to-end encryption and work with law enforcement to solve crimes,” said Will Cathcart, whose title is Head of WhatsApp, in a YouTube interview with an Australian think tank in July.
The tension between privacy and disseminating information to law enforcement is exacerbated by a second pressure: Facebook’s need to make money from WhatsApp. Since paying $22 billion to buy WhatsApp in 2014, Facebook has been trying to figure out how to generate profits from a service that doesn’t charge its users a penny.
WhatsApp’s increasingly aggressive business plan is focused on charging companies for an array of services — letting users make payments via WhatsApp and managing customer service chats — that offer convenience but fewer privacy protections. The result is a confusing two-tiered privacy system within the same app where the protections of end-to-end encryption are further eroded when WhatsApp users employ the service to communicate with businesses.
The company’s December marketing presentation captures WhatsApp’s diverging imperatives. It states that “privacy will remain important.” But it also conveys what seems to be a more urgent mission: the need to “open the aperture of the brand to encompass our future business objectives.”
In many ways, the experience of being a content moderator for WhatsApp in Austin is identical to being a moderator for Facebook or Instagram, according to interviews with 29 current and former moderators. Mostly in their 20s and 30s, many with past experience as store clerks, grocery checkers and baristas, the moderators are hired and employed by Accenture, a huge corporate contractor that works for Facebook and other Fortune 500 behemoths.
The job listings advertise “Content Review” positions and make no mention of Facebook or WhatsApp. Employment documents list the workers’ initial title as “content moderation associate.” Pay starts around $16.50 an hour. Moderators are instructed to tell anyone who asks that they work for Accenture, and are required to sign sweeping non-disclosure agreements. Citing the NDAs, almost all the current and former moderators interviewed by ProPublica insisted on anonymity. (An Accenture spokesperson declined comment, referring all questions about content moderation to WhatsApp.)
When the WhatsApp team was assembled in Austin in 2019, Facebook moderators already occupied the fourth floor of an office tower on Sixth Street, adjacent to the city’s famous bar-and-music scene. The WhatsApp team was installed on the floor above, with new glass-enclosed work pods and nicer bathrooms that sparked a tinge of envy in a few members of the Facebook team. Most of the WhatsApp team scattered to work from home during the pandemic. Whether in the office or at home, they spend their days in front of screens, using a Facebook software tool to examine a stream of “tickets,” organized by subject into “reactive” and “proactive” queues.
Collectively, the workers scrutinize millions of pieces of WhatsApp content each week. Each reviewer handles upwards of 600 tickets a day, which gives them less than a minute per ticket. WhatsApp declined to reveal how many contract workers are employed for content review, but a partial staffing list reviewed by ProPublica suggests that, at Accenture alone, it’s more than 1,000. WhatsApp moderators, like their Facebook and Instagram counterparts, are expected to meet performance metrics for speed and accuracy, which are audited by Accenture.
Their jobs differ in other ways. Because WhatsApp’s content is encrypted, artificial intelligence systems can’t automatically scan all chats, images and videos, as they do on Facebook and Instagram. Instead, WhatsApp reviewers gain access to private content when users hit the “report” button on the app, identifying a message as allegedly violating the platform’s terms of service. This forwards five messages — the allegedly offending one along with the four previous ones in the exchange, including any images or videos — to WhatsApp in unscrambled form, according to former WhatsApp engineers and moderators. Automated systems then feed these tickets into “reactive” queues for contract workers to assess.
Artificial intelligence initiates a second set of queues — so-called proactive ones — by scanning unencrypted data that WhatsApp collects about its users and comparing it against suspicious account information and messaging patterns (a new account rapidly sending out a high volume of chats is evidence of spam), as well as terms and images that have previously been deemed abusive. The unencrypted data available for scrutiny is extensive. It includes the names and profile images of a user’s WhatsApp groups as well as their phone number, profile photo, status message, phone battery level, language and time zone, unique mobile phone ID and IP address, wireless signal strength and phone operating system, as a list of their electronic devices, any related Facebook and Instagram accounts, the last time they used the app and any previous history of violations.
The WhatsApp reviewers have three choices when presented with a ticket for either type of queue: Do nothing, place the user on “watch” for further scrutiny, or ban the account. (Facebook and Instagram content moderators have more options, including removing individual postings. It’s that distinction — the fact that WhatsApp reviewers can’t delete individual items — that the company cites as its basis for asserting that WhatsApp reviewers are not “content moderators.”)
WhatsApp moderators must make subjective, sensitive and subtle judgments, interviews and documents examined by ProPublica show. They examine a wide range of categories, including “Spam Report,” “Civic Bad Actor” (political hate speech and disinformation), “Terrorism Global Credible Threat,” “CEI” (child exploitative imagery) and “CP” (child pornography). Another set of categories addresses the messaging and conduct of millions of small and large businesses that use WhatsApp to chat with customers and sell their wares. These queues have such titles as “business impersonation prevalence,” “commerce policy probable violators” and “business verification.”
Moderators say the guidance they get from WhatsApp and Accenture relies on standards that can be simultaneously arcane and disturbingly graphic. Decisions about abusive sexual imagery, for example, can rest on an assessment of whether a naked child in an image appears adolescent or prepubescent, based on comparison of hip bones and pubic hair to a medical index chart. One reviewer recalled a grainy video in a political-speech queue that depicted a machete-wielding man holding up what appeared to be a severed head: “We had to watch and say, ‘Is this a real dead body or a fake dead body?’”
In late 2020, moderators were informed of a new queue for alleged “sextortion.” It was defined in an explanatory memo as “a form of sexual exploitation where people are blackmailed with a nude image of themselves which have been shared by them or someone else on the Internet.” The memo said workers would review messages reported by users that “include predefined keywords typically used in sextortion/blackmail messages.”
WhatsApp’s review system is hampered by impediments, including buggy language translation. The service has users in 180 countries, with the vast majority located outside the U.S. Even though Accenture hires workers who speak a variety of languages, for messages in some languages there’s often no native speaker on site to assess abuse complaints. That means using Facebook’s language-translation tool, which reviewers said could be so inaccurate that it sometimes labeled messages in Arabic as being in Spanish. The tool also offered little guidance on local slang, political context or sexual innuendo. “In the three years I’ve been there,” one moderator said, “it’s always been horrible.”
The process can be rife with errors and misunderstandings. Companies have been flagged for offering weapons for sale when they’re selling straight shaving razors. Bras can be sold, but if the marketing language registers as “adult,” the seller can be labeled a forbidden “sexually oriented business.” And a flawed translation tool set off an alarm when it detected kids for sale and slaughter, which, upon closer scrutiny, turned out to involve young goats intended to be cooked and eaten in halal meals.
The system is also undercut by the human failings of the people who instigate reports. Complaints are frequently filed to punish, harass or prank someone, according to moderators. In messages from Brazil and Mexico, one moderator explained, “we had a couple of months where AI was banning groups left and right because people were messing with their friends by changing their group names” and then reporting them. “At the worst of it, we were probably getting tens of thousands of those. They figured out some words the algorithm did not like.”
Other reports fail to meet WhatsApp standards for an account ban. “Most of it is not violating,” one of the moderators said. “It’s content that is already on the internet, and it’s just people trying to mess with users.” Still, each case can reveal up to five unencrypted messages, which are then examined by moderators.
The judgment of WhatsApp’s AI is less than perfect, moderators say. “There were a lot of innocent photos on there that were not allowed to be on there,” said Carlos Sauceda, who left Accenture last year after nine months. “It might have been a photo of a child taking a bath, and there was nothing wrong with it.” As another WhatsApp moderator put it, “A lot of the time, the artificial intelligence is not that intelligent.”
Facebook’s written guidance to WhatsApp moderators acknowledges many problems, noting “we have made mistakes and our policies have been weaponized by bad actors to get good actors banned. When users write inquiries pertaining to abusive matters like these, it is up to WhatsApp to respond and act (if necessary) accordingly in a timely and pleasant manner.” Of course, if a user appeals a ban that was prompted by a user report, according to one moderator, it entails having a second moderator examine the user’s content.
In public statements and on the company’s websites, Facebook Inc. is noticeably vague about WhatsApp’s monitoring process. The company does not provide a regular accounting of how WhatsApp polices the platform. WhatsApp’s FAQ page and online complaint form note that it will receive “the most recent messages” from a user who has been flagged. They do not, however, disclose how many unencrypted messages are revealed when a report is filed, or that those messages are examined by outside contractors. (WhatsApp told ProPublica it limits that disclosure to keep violators from “gaming” the system.)
By contrast, both Facebook and Instagram post lengthy “Community Standards” documents detailing the criteria its moderators use to police content, along with articles and videos about “the unrecognized heroes who keep Facebook safe” and announcements on new content-review sites. Facebook’s transparency reports detail how many pieces of content are “actioned” for each type of violation. WhatsApp is not included in this report.
When dealing with legislators, Facebook Inc. officials also offer few details — but are eager to assure them that they don’t let encryption stand in the way of protecting users from images of child sexual abuse and exploitation. For example, when members of the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Facebook about the impact of encrypting its platforms, the company, in written follow-up questions in Jan. 2020, cited WhatsApp in boasting that it would remain responsive to law enforcement. “Even within an encrypted system,” one response noted, “we will still be able to respond to lawful requests for metadata, including potentially critical location or account information… We already have an encrypted messaging service, WhatsApp, that — in contrast to some other encrypted services — provides a simple way for people to report abuse or safety concerns.”
Sure enough, WhatsApp reported 400,000 instances of possible child-exploitation imagery to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2020, according to its head, Cathcart. That was ten times as many as in 2019. “We are by far the industry leaders in finding and detecting that behavior in an end-to-end encrypted service,” he said.
During his YouTube interview with the Australian think tank, Cathcart also described WhatsApp’s reliance on user reporting and its AI systems’ ability to examine account information that isn’t subject to encryption. Asked how many staffers WhatsApp employed to investigate abuse complaints from an app with more than two billion users, Cathcart didn’t mention content moderators or their access to encrypted content. “There’s a lot of people across Facebook who help with WhatsApp,” he explained. “If you look at people who work full time on WhatsApp, it’s above a thousand. I won’t get into the full breakdown of customer service, user reports, engineering, etc. But it’s a lot of that.”
In written responses for this article, the company spokesperson said: “We build WhatsApp in a manner that limits the data we collect while providing us tools to prevent spam, investigate threats, and ban those engaged in abuse, including based on user reports we receive. This work takes extraordinary effort from security experts and a valued trust and safety team that works tirelessly to help provide the world with private communication.” The spokesperson noted that WhatsApp has released new privacy features, including “more controls about how people’s messages can disappear” or be viewed only once. He added, “Based on the feedback we’ve received from users, we’re confident people understand when they make reports to WhatsApp we receive the content they send us.”
Since the moment Facebook announced plans to buy WhatsApp in 2014, observers wondered how the service, known for its fervent commitment to privacy, would fare inside a corporation known for the opposite. Zuckerberg had become one of the wealthiest people on the planet by using a “surveillance capitalism” approach: collecting and exploiting reams of user data to sell targeted digital ads. Facebook’s relentless pursuit of growth and profits has generated a series of privacy scandals in which it was accused of deceiving customers and regulators.
By contrast, WhatsApp knew little about its users apart from their phone numbers and shared none of that information with third parties. WhatsApp ran no ads, and its co-founders, Jan Koum and Brian Acton, both former Yahoo engineers, were hostile to them. “At every company that sells ads,” they wrote in 2012, “a significant portion of their engineering team spends their day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect all your personal data, upgrading the servers that hold all the data and making sure it’s all being logged and collated and sliced and packed and shipped out,” adding: “Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.” At WhatsApp, they noted, “your data isn’t even in the picture. We are simply not interested in any of it.”
Zuckerberg publicly vowed in a 2014 keynote speech that he would keep WhatsApp “exactly the same.” He declared, “We are absolutely not going to change plans around WhatsApp and the way it uses user data. WhatsApp is going to operate completely autonomously.”
In April 2016, WhatsApp completed its long-planned adoption of end-to-end encryption, which helped establish the app as a prized communications platform in 180 countries, including many where text messages and phone calls are cost-prohibitive. International dissidents, whistleblowers and journalists also turned to WhatsApp to escape government eavesdropping.
Four months later, however, WhatsApp disclosed it would begin sharing user data with Facebook — precisely what Zuckerberg had said would not happen — a move that cleared the way for an array of future revenue-generating plans. The new WhatsApp terms of service said the app would share information such as users’ phone numbers, profile photos, status messages and IP addresses for the purposes of ad targeting, fighting spam and abuse and gathering metrics. “By connecting your phone number with Facebook’s systems,” WhatsApp explained, “Facebook can offer better friend suggestions and show you more relevant ads if you have an account with them.”
Such actions were increasingly bringing Facebook into the crosshairs of regulators. In May 2017, European Union antitrust regulators fined the company 110 million euros (about $122 million) for falsely claiming three years earlier that it would be impossible to link the user information between WhatsApp and the Facebook family of apps. The EU concluded that Facebook had “intentionally or negligently” deceived regulators. Facebook insisted its false statements in 2014 were not intentional, but didn’t contest the fine.
By the spring of 2018, the WhatsApp co-founders, now both billionaires, were gone. Acton, in what he later described as an act of “penance” for the “crime” of selling WhatsApp to Facebook, gave $50 million to a foundation backing Signal, a free encrypted messaging app that would emerge as a WhatsApp rival. (Acton’s donor-advised fund has also given money to ProPublica.)
Meanwhile, Facebook was under fire for its security and privacy failures as never before. The pressure culminated in a landmark $5 billion fine by the Federal Trade Commission in July 2019 for violating a previous agreement to protect user privacy. The fine was almost 20 times greater than any previous privacy-related penalty, according to the FTC, and Facebook’s transgressions included “deceiving users about their ability to control the privacy of their personal information.”
The FTC announced that it was ordering Facebook to take steps to protect privacy going forward, including for WhatsApp users: “As part of Facebook’s order-mandated privacy program, which covers WhatsApp and Instagram, Facebook must conduct a privacy review of every new or modified product, service, or practice before it is implemented, and document its decisions about user privacy.” Compliance officers would be required to generate a “quarterly privacy review report” and share it with the company and, upon request, the FTC.
Facebook agreed to the FTC’s fine and order. Indeed, the negotiations for that agreement were the backdrop, just four months before that, for Zuckerberg’s announcement of his new commitment to privacy.
By that point, WhatsApp had begun using Accenture and other outside contractors to hire hundreds of content reviewers. But the company was eager not to step on its larger privacy message — or spook its global user base. It said nothing publicly about its hiring of contractors to review content.
Even as Zuckerberg was touting Facebook Inc.’s new commitment to privacy in 2019, he didn’t mention that his company was apparently sharing more of its WhatsApp users’ metadata than ever with the parent company — and with law enforcement.
To the lay ear, the term “metadata” can sound abstract, a word that evokes the intersection of literary criticism and statistics. To use an old, pre-digital analogy, metadata is the equivalent of what’s written on the outside of an envelope — the names and addresses of the sender and recipient and the postmark reflecting where and when it was mailed — while the “content” is what’s written on the letter sealed inside the envelope. So it is with WhatsApp messages: The content is protected, but the envelope reveals a multitude of telling details (as noted: time stamps, phone numbers and much more).
Those in the information and intelligence fields understand how crucial this information can be. It was metadata, after all, that the National Security Agency was gathering about millions of Americans not suspected of a crime, prompting a global outcry when it was exposed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. “Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life,” former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker once said. “If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.” In a symposium at Johns Hopkins University in 2014, Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of both the CIA and NSA, went even further: “We kill people based on metadata.”
U.S. law enforcement has used WhatsApp metadata to help put people in jail. ProPublica found more than a dozen instances in which the Justice Department sought court orders for the platform’s metadata since 2017. These represent a fraction of overall requests, known as pen register orders (a phrase borrowed from the technology used to track numbers dialed by landline telephones), as many more are kept from public view by court order. U.S. government requests for data on outgoing and incoming messages from all Facebook platforms increased by 276% from the first half of 2017 to the second half of 2020, according to Facebook Inc. statistics (which don’t break out the numbers by platform). The company’s rate of handing over at least some data in response to such requests has risen from 84% to 95% during that period.
It’s not clear exactly what government investigators have been able to gather from WhatsApp, as the results of those orders, too, are often kept from public view. Internally, WhatsApp calls such requests for information about users “prospective message pairs,” or PMPs. These provide data on a user’s messaging patterns in response to requests from U.S. law enforcement agencies, as well as those in at least three other countries — the United Kingdom, Brazil and India — according to a person familiar with the matter who shared this information on condition of anonymity. Law enforcement requests from other countries might only receive basic subscriber profile information.
WhatsApp metadata was pivotal in the arrest and conviction of Natalie “May” Edwards, a former Treasury Department official with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, for leaking confidential banking reports about suspicious transactions to BuzzFeed News. The FBI’s criminal complaint detailed hundreds of messages between Edwards and a BuzzFeed reporter using an “encrypted application,” which interviews and court records confirmed was WhatsApp. “On or about August 1, 2018, within approximately six hours of the Edwards pen becoming operative — and the day after the July 2018 Buzzfeed article was published — the Edwards cellphone exchanged approximately 70 messages via the encrypted application with the Reporter-1 cellphone during an approximately 20-minute time span between 12:33 a.m. and 12:54 a.m.,” FBI Special Agent Emily Eckstut wrote in her October 2018 complaint. Edwards and the reporter used WhatsApp because Edwards believed the platform to be secure, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Edwards was sentenced on June 3 to six months in prison after pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge and reported to prison last week. Edwards’ attorney declined to comment, as did representatives from the FBI and the Justice Department.
WhatsApp has for years downplayed how much unencrypted information it shares with law enforcement, largely limiting mentions of the practice to boilerplate language buried deep in its terms of service. It does not routinely keep permanent logs of who users are communicating with and how often, but company officials confirmed they do turn on such tracking at their own discretion — even for internal Facebook leak investigations — or in response to law enforcement requests. The company declined to tell ProPublica how frequently it does so.
The privacy page for WhatsApp assures users that they have total control over their own metadata. It says users can “decide if only contacts, everyone, or nobody can see your profile photo” or when they last opened their status updates or when they last opened the app. Regardless of the settings a user chooses, WhatsApp collects and analyzes all of that data — a fact not mentioned anywhere on the page.
The conflict between privacy and security on encrypted platforms seems to be only intensifying. Law enforcement and child safety advocates have urged Zuckerberg to abandon his plan to encrypt all of Facebook’s messaging platforms. In June 2020, three Republican senators introduced the “Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act,” which would require tech companies to assist in providing access to even encrypted content in response to law enforcement warrants. For its part, WhatsApp recently sued the Indian government to block its requirement that encrypted apps provide “traceability” — a method to identify the sender of any message deemed relevant to law enforcement. WhatsApp has fought similar demands in other countries.
Other encrypted platforms take a vastly different approach to monitoring their users than WhatsApp. Signal employs no content moderators, collects far less user and group data, allows no cloud backups and generally rejects the notion that it should be policing user activities. It submits no child exploitation reports to NCMEC.
Apple has touted its commitment to privacy as a selling point. Its iMessage system displays a “report” button only to alert the company to suspected spam, and the company has made just a few hundred annual reports to NCMEC, all of them originating from scanning outgoing email, which is unencrypted.
But Apple recently took a new tack, and appeared to stumble along the way. Amid intensifying pressure from Congress, in August the company announced a complex new system for identifying child-exploitative imagery on users’ iCloud backups. Apple insisted the new system poses no threat to private content, but privacy advocates accused the company of creating a backdoor that potentially allows authoritarian governments to demand broader content searches, which could result in the targeting of dissidents, journalists or other critics of the state. On Sept. 3, Apple announced it would delay implementation of the new system.
Still, it’s Facebook that seems to face the most constant skepticism among major tech platforms. It is using encryption to market itself as privacy-friendly, while saying little about the other ways it collects data, according to Lloyd Richardson, the director of IT at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. “This whole idea that they’re doing it for personal protection of people is completely ludicrous,” Richardson said. “You’re trusting an app owned and written by Facebook to do exactly what they’re saying. Do you trust that entity to do that?” (On Sept. 2, Irish authorities announced that they are fining WhatsApp 225 million euros, about $267 million, for failing to properly disclose how the company shares user information with other Facebook platforms. WhatsApp is contesting the finding.)
Facebook’s emphasis on promoting WhatsApp as a paragon of privacy is evident in the December marketing document obtained by ProPublica. The “Brand Foundations” presentation says it was the product of a 21-member global team across all of Facebook, involving a half-dozen workshops, quantitative research, “stakeholder interviews” and “endless brainstorms.” Its aim: to offer “an emotional articulation” of WhatsApp’s benefits, “an inspirational toolkit that helps us tell our story,” and a “brand purpose to champion the deep human connection that leads to progress.” The marketing deck identifies a feeling of “closeness” as WhatsApp’s “ownable emotional territory,” saying the app delivers “the closest thing to an in-person conversation.”
WhatsApp should portray itself as “courageous,” according to another slide, because it’s “taking a strong, public stance that is not financially motivated on things we care about,” such as defending encryption and fighting misinformation. But the presentation also speaks of the need to “open the aperture of the brand to encompass our future business objectives. While privacy will remain important, we must accommodate for future innovations.”
The policy change focused on how messages and data would be handled when users communicate with a business in the ever-expanding array of WhatsApp Business offerings. Companies now could store their chats with users and use information about users for marketing purposes, including targeting them with ads on Facebook or Instagram.
Elon Musk tweeted “Use Signal,” and WhatsApp users rebelled. Facebook delayed for three months the requirement for users to approve the policy update. In the meantime, it struggled to convince users that the change would have no effect on the privacy protections for their personal communications, with a slightly modified version of its usual assurance: “WhatsApp cannot see your personal messages or hear your calls and neither can Facebook.” Just as when the company first bought WhatsApp years before, the message was the same: Trust us.
Sept. 10, 2021: This story originally stated incorrectly that Apple’s iMessage system has no “report” button. The iMessage system does have a report button, but only for suspected spam (not for suspected abusive content).