Gimme Back My Gchat

“Gtalk Mobile” and “Messenger Lite” in the age of WeChat

You know what I miss and have found myself thinking about a lot recently? It’s sort of weird. Google Talk — the instant messaging service that Google launched in 2005. A part of me feels like it was the pinnacle of instant messaging. Yes, a product launched over 12 years ago. It was just so simple. So refreshingly simple.

Of course, instant messaging was nothing new at the time. I was a heavy, heavy user of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) in the 90s and early 00s. But over time, it got bloated. As did iChat, Apple’s IM client baked into OS X. When it launched, there was something so elegant about Google’s chat solution (also called ‘Gtalk’ or ‘Gchat’). It could not be more spartan.¹ It was beautiful.

It got more useful over time, with group chats, the ability to chat with AIM users, and eventually being baked into Gmail itself.² But I still miss that initial version. Now, more than ever.

Gtalk eventually evolved into Hangouts. Though it’s really not an exaggeration to say it was more like de-evolution. The product actually lost functionality over time (XMPP being one example), as Hangouts slowly rose out of the grave of Google+. The result was the Frankenstein of a product we see today (and is now just one of many Google chat products, of course).

Within Gmail, while Hangouts is conceptually similar to what Gtalk was, the experience is almost the opposite. It’s slower, more confusing, and frustrating.

These days, we all use several chat products. iMessage here. Facebook Messenger there. Telegram at times. Slack at work. WhatsApp. Snapchat. Confide. Signal. Line. Kik. GroupMe. Tango. Skype. The list goes on. And that’s not to mention the chat functionality within apps like Instagram. And even Twitter DM. It’s enough to make one long for the days of Trillian

At the same time, some of the services that have sprung up over the years, seemingly in an attempt to take messaging back to its “instant” core, have fallen away. MessageMe, which was acquired by Yahoo in 2014, jumps to mind. As does Beluga, which was bought by Facebook way back in 2011, and laid the foundation for Messenger.

Speaking of, recent remarks from David Marcus, Facebook’s now head of Messenger, brought my longing for Gtalk to the forefront once again. In talking about trends for Messenger in 2018, he laid out a key one:

Simplify To Delight

Over the last two years, we built a lot of capabilities to find the features that continue to set us apart. A lot of them have found their product market fit; some haven’t. While we raced to build these new features, the app became too cluttered. Expect to see us invest in massively simplifying and streamlining Messenger this year.

This is great to hear. In particular with Messenger, which I’ve complained about before for yes, adding bloat. Look, I get it, it’s tricky. No one actually sets out to make a product more bloated. You want to keep iterating, adding functionality that users desire, and you try to do that in a streamlined way. But cruft builds up. And next thing you know: bloat.

At the same time, there’s a primal dilemma: the easiest way to keep something simple is to keep it static. But if you don’t change and evolve, competition will come along… It’s a nearly impossible balancing act.

And yet. I go back to what I want. It’s simple — literally. It’s perhaps not exactly Gtalk as it existed in 2005 — after all, that was two years before the launch of the iPhone — but it’s something akin to the spiritual successor to that. It’s basically Gtalk Mobile.

I want an extremely lightweight client that loads instantly and sends (and receives) messages even faster. This is, of course, the core of what a messaging client should be. And it feels like we’ve not only lost sight of that, we can’t see it because it’s hidden behind some augmented reality doodad.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the AR stuff is cool. Amazing, even. And fun! But it’s also extremely heavy when it comes to payload sizes and bandwidth usage. All of this, of course, reduces speed. The same is true with games. What fun! Until they’re being shoved in your face and getting in the way of actual communication.

Even video — something like FaceTime is a revelation when talking to family that is far away. But I think Apple had the right idea in making this a separate app.⁴ Maybe even Google did in separating Allo and Duo. (Though why neither of those are Hangouts itself, I don’t know.)

Look, I love stickers as much as the next guy. And I probably love GIFs more than the next guy. I love using both in my messaging products. At the same time, I think I might trade them to go back to the basics. Or, at the very least, I’d rethink how they’re implemented in such services.

In fact, maybe Gmail does this right with its ability to install add-ons to the service — something which I do for Giphy to insert GIFs in my emails, for example. Or maybe Slack has the right idea when it comes to invoking such things with slash commands (as opposed to adding visual buttons to do so).

I don’t know the answers as to how to do this right. But I know what I want as a user. All the various chat apps and services currently do some things well and other things poorly, but they all stand united in becoming more bloated over time.

And beyond the above, it’s pretty obvious why. Just look at what all of these chat clients aspire to be: WeChat. That is, the chat-client-as-a-mobile-OS. It remains to be seen if such a tactic will work anywhere outside of China. But regardless, clearly not all of the above can be the “WeChat of the West”.⁵

Since we’re all using several clients anyway, it would be nice to see at least some of them try to focus on different things, rather than have them all try to do everything. Because I’d like to see one — just one — of them recall the days of yore. Simpler times, with simpler chat apps.

There’s a reason so many of us are clamoring for ‘Messenger Lite’. Or ‘Gchat Mobile’, as it were. Communicating shouldn’t be a chore.

¹ Yet still had some fun flourishes like status messages (which AIM had popularized) and avatars, of course. You could also easily call another user with a click.

² I wonder how many emails this saved in aggregate?

³ Of course, the protocols to make such interoperability work are long gone.

⁴ iMessage itself is pretty good when it comes to simpicity — but also getting worse! See: that weird app carousel thingy.

⁵ And yet, they’ll keep trying because that form of monetization is infinitely better than the advertising-based alternative for chat.

Gimme Back My Gchat was originally published in 500ish Words on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Please follow and like us: