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Google Chat launches as option in Gmail, replacing Hangouts

Google is close to replacing Hangouts with the newer messaging service Chat after integrating the product with Gmail.

Google has integrated its Chat messaging app with Gmail to get more business customers to use it. But the product remains less sophisticated than collaboration apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams.

Google previously postponed plans to force businesses to adopt Chat in place of the older messaging app Hangouts. The search giant initially scheduled that transition for October 2019 but now won't push the switch until late 2020.

This month, however, Google began letting any customer swap out Hangouts for Chat within Gmail. The release marked the end of a closed beta program during which a handful of customers made the move.

Google also added to Chat some essential features whose absence had been giving customers pause. In addition to the Gmail tie-in, Chat now supports messaging with external parties that also use Chat.

Chat is more advanced than Hangouts because it supports things like project channels and the ability to forward a message to email. Users can also cross-launch Google Meet, a video conferencing tool, and Google Voice, a telephony service.

But as a collaboration tool, Chat isn't on par with apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams, said Irwin Lazar, an analyst at Nemertes Research. The product is more aptly called an instant messaging app than a team collaboration app, he said.

"I see this as really just an upgrade over Hangouts," Lazar said. "It strikes me very much as just an improvement to instant messaging, which is where the competitors were years ago."

For Google, Gmail remains the focal point of their business communications strategy. In contrast, rival Microsoft has prioritized its Teams app over Outlook for collaboration.

Google has also struggled with branding. Google Meet and Google Chat were previously called Hangouts Meet and Hangouts Chat. That caused confusion because Google's consumer messaging service has long been called Hangouts.

"Google is aware that the naming convention for especially their chat products had been confusing to say the least," said Wayne Kurtzman, an analyst at IDC.

Google also has an overlapping portfolio of communications apps. In addition to Meet and Hangouts, both of which provide video conferencing, Google offers Duo, a mobile meeting app.

The launch of Chat in Gmail comes shortly after Google added Meet to the email sidebar. Google made the product free to compete with Zoom. But the app still lacks essential features like virtual backgrounds, breakout rooms and polls.

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