Google is moving two major features from Google Workspace (Google’s paid business Google Accounts, formerly called “G Suite”) to free consumer Google Accounts. Google Chat, the company’s newest messaging app, is now available to everyone. And Gmail’s big merger with Google Chat, Google Docs, and Google Meet (Google’s Zoom competitor) is also coming to consumer accounts.
Nearly a year ago, Google announced a major change to Gmail that would turn it from a simple email app into a “single, integrated experience” where you can send email, chat, work on a Google Doc, and make video calls. all from one browser-based super app. In August, this change was rolled out to paid Google Workspace accounts and applied experimentally to some consumer accounts. However, today Google is officially making the feature available to all Google users.
The “unified” Gmail user interface usually takes the form of a segmented sidebar design with all sorts of Google apps in it. Gmail has long had a segmented chat sidebar: first Google Talk (from 2005), then Google Hangouts (2013), and now Google Chat (2018). With today’s change, there are new sections with a place for Google Chat “rooms” (or group chats, which are now separate from regular contacts) and a section for Google Meet (so you can make video calls).
Although it’s not in the sidebar, Google Docs also has Gmail integration. If someone pastes a Google Docs link into Google Chat, you can hover over the thumbnail and click “Open in Chat,” which opens the Google Doc in a new multi-pane interface in Gmail, with your navigation sidebar to the left. A split screen interface will also appear with Google Chat on the left and Google Doc on the right. “Open in chat” seems like a strange name for this button, since it opens the document in Gmail.com, but this split-screen interface doesn’t really work if you get the link via email. The interface will also not work if Chat is in a pop-up window. Chat must be displayed in a full screen interface for the button to appear.
Another new widget you’re likely to see in the Gmail UI is the selectable Google Chat status in the top right corner. Normally this status is “Active” with a green dot next to it, but you can switch to “Do Not Disturb” or “Invisible” so you can get some work done.
“Starting today, you can enable the integrated experience in Google Workspace by enabling Google Chat,” says Google. Hiding the unified Gmail interface behind the “Google Chat” flag doesn’t make sense, but you can check this box by going to Settings -> “Chat and Meet” and flipping the “Chat” setting from “Classic Hangouts ” to ‘Google Chat’. If you hate all that extra stuff in Gmail, you can set the “Chat” setting to “Off” and the Google Meet setting to “hide.” That should give you regular Gmail.
Google Chat for everyone
Also in today’s announcements: Google Chat, Google’s newest messaging app, is rolling out to all consumer accounts. Google Chat has had a long and eventful life as a service. It was first announced in 2017 as “Hangouts Chat” and was exclusive to Google Workspace/GSuite. It was Google’s competitor to Slack, the $27 billion business chat app, and was renamed “Google Chat” three years later. Starting today, Google Chat will also be deployed as a consumer chat app and will eventually replace Google Hangouts, Google’s most popular chat product.
Google Launched (and Shut Down) a lot of chat apps over the years – Google Talk, Voice, Buzz, Disco, Google+ Messenger, Hangouts, Spaces, Allo, etc – but one user base has kept it all going in this chaos. The original 2005 Google Talk user base was upgraded to Google Hangouts in 2013 and now those Google Hangouts users will be upgraded to Google Chat at some point. Google Chat is already compatible with Google Hangouts – your contacts and messages in one app will show up in the other – Google just needs to kick users off the old Hangouts clients and get them working on the new Google Chat clients.
Rolling out Google Chat to everyone is the first step in that process. Presumably we will eventually see prompts in the old Hangouts clients to switch to Google Chat, while Google Hangouts will finally experience the promised shutdown that has now been delayed several times.
I’ve had early access to Google Chat for a while now, and if you’re wondering what the difference is between the old Google Hangouts and the new Google Chat, the answer is “not much.” That’s actually a good thing. Google’s previous attempts to replace Hangouts, such as Google Allo, have been woefully inadequate in terms of missing features and client support. Google Chat is functionally the same as Hangouts. The two big differences are that chat rooms now support @mentions, which will be great for larger rooms, and that rooms are separate from the individual contact list, just like in Slack. The result isn’t a dramatic upgrade or downgrade, but Google Chat does have more modern clients. Moreover, unlike Hangouts, Google Chat will continue to run for the foreseeable future.
Another new Gmail interface – and something called ‘Spaces’
The Gmail interface rolling out to everyone today was announced a year ago. Today (along with the announcement post) Google showed another new Gmail interface and a new Google Chat feature called ‘Spaces’. Meanwhile, Spaces gets a separate blog post all to itself. The update sounds like a revamp for Google Chat’s group chat feature, which used to be called “Rooms” and will be called “Spaces” from now on. (Google already had a product called “Spaces” — it was a messaging app that launched in 2016 and was discontinued eight months later.)
The blog post mentions that Google Chat Spaces “will include new features such as in-line threading of topics, presence indicators, custom statuses, expressive responses, and a collapsible view.” Google Chat already has comments and presence indicators, so it’s unclear what the blog post is talking about there, but in-line threading of topics would make the service more Slack-like. Both of Google’s blog posts today are so full of flowery marketing language and devoid of detail that readers will have a challenge parsing what’s changing and what the new features are. One of the messages says:
Spaces can be a place for knowledge sharing and community building for teams of all sizes, organizing all relevant information, conversations and files for a project and intelligently moderating topics, even at the organizational level . With the ability to pin posts where everyone can see them, Spaces will play a vital role in helping people stay connected and informed as hybrid work evolves.
Right. Sounds like a chat room to me.
What’s more interesting is that the Spaces screenshots show some changes to the Gmail interface. Most of the navigation UI area is grayed out in these screenshots. The sidebar, the top search and settings area, and the right side panel are all gray, whereas these days those spots are white and blend into the main content area.
The sidebar buttons are all styled differently with icons and text; today the buttons show icons when collapsed and text when hovered over. The buttons also appear to be navigational items in this screenshot, while the sidebar is currently just an accordion-like list. You can click an arrow next to “Chat” to expand the chat list in the sidebar, but clicking the “Chat” title does nothing.
There are also three person-shaped icons in the lower left corner. It is not clear what they are. The icons for the group chat participants are still at the top right corner of this screenshot. If they are DMs, you would think that next to the “Chat” icon would be a notification number, such as the “Mail” icon. Foreign. Google doesn’t acknowledge this redesign in its blog post at all, so we’ll have to wait for the redesign to roll out for more information.
Listing image by Google