Google Hangouts had been my primary messaging platform for very many years.  The ongoing joke among my friends had always been “we’re not friends unless you’re on Google Hangouts.” So much so that many of my friends humoured me by installing Google Hangouts and I’d be the lone person they talked to on it. Almost on a whim, a core group of friends and I switched over to Telegram a couple of weeks ago.

Google Hangouts held so much promise in the beginning. It started it’s life as Google Talk leveraging Jabber and XMPP which allowed things like cross-platform communication. In the beginning, Google Talk, Facebook and Yahoo messengers could talk to one another. However as the needs of users matured, companies started to abandon Jabber to add new features and creating silos in the various messaging platforms. Users soon became used to the fractured ecosystem whereby different people they talked to would be on different platforms. Unfortunately, Google made very few visible upgrades to functionality for Hangouts so ecosystems like Facebook Messenger, Slack, iMessage and Whatsapp started to dominate. An interesting observation is that even though Android, Google’s mobile operating system, dominates mobile devices, very few people have heard of Google Hangouts let alone use it.

The switch to a new messaging platform was imminent among my friends; that much was clear. The big question really boiled down to which platform and when. The choice the group made ended up being Telegram.

It’s not powered by Facebook

Facebook currently owns 3 major web properties right now – Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. It seems to make sense to have some diversity in terms of choosing a different platform for messaging. Telegram was created by the owners of VK but was spun off as a separate company with the focus on messaging encryption. The entire platform is designed not to be powered by ads and is primarily funded by Digital Fortress.

Familiar paradigm

Telegram looks, feels and works like Whatsapp. This allows for quicker adoption for users who are already familiar with Whatsapp. You sign up with a mobile number and it allows you to do direct chats as well as group chats. You can create manage your group chats and set background for it. It also allows you to do voice chats and to individuals. It allows you to mention people which is standard with Whatsapp but a definite upgrade to Google Hangouts.

Supporting multiple platforms natively

The place where Telegram excels is the number of native apps that it supports. I have numerous devices across a multitude of platforms (MacOS, Windows, Android). It’s brilliant that it supports all of them. It has always driven me crazy is that I can’t use Whatsapp on another phone or my tablet. The fact that it supports the slew of platforms natively automatically gives it an edge in my group of friends

Unique features to Telegram

Telegram supports a secret chat function as well as a channel and these are unique to Telegram in comprasion to Whatsapp. The purpose of the secret chat is that it enables encrypted peer-to-peer conversation that isn’t stored on Telegrams servers. This is really great if you want to keep your conversations private and out of the eyes of prying government organizations. The channel is targeted for brands who want to have conversations with a larger set (unlimited according to the documentation) of audiences. I can see this being useful from a broadcast perspective

Things I wish were better

It’s never made sense to me to use a phone number as the primary identifier for people. There are many reasons why people change their phone numbers. As a result, it’s both a security risk as well as making it such an awkward product experience. The inherent workaround for this is to use a VOIP phone number that also provides an SMS service. The other glaring feature missing is the ability to do video conferencing. Most other messaging platforms already support this and not having it is a massive miss.

Other thoughts on the messaging landscape

The messaging landscape is very competitive right now. My favourite messaging platform right now is Microsoft Teams. It’s well positioned as a collaborative tool and is extremely powerful if you are using the Office 365 platform. The interoperability within that ecosystem makes them hard to beat. Slack is definitely feeling the heat. Google Hangouts Chat looks promising. The challenge with it is that it only works within your Google Apps domain and automatically limits its viability as a broader communication tool. In addition, the other risk for Google Hangouts Chat is that Google has been notorious when it comes to how they’ve approached the messaging space. People are very tentative on whether or not to trust where they are going with it.