What’s wrong with GTalk

Google Talk is Google's IM service. And thats about all it is. Launched in 2005, it has seen a few minor revisions, such as the addition of video and audio chat, but, apart from this, is still mostly just another instant messenger service. With the rise of smarter IM systems, such as RIM's Blackberry messenger and Apple's iMessage, Google should spend some time improving and upgrading Google talk.

Just an IM service

Google Talk is somewhat plain, a relic from a past era. When Google Talk was introduced, we were just coming down from the high point in instant messaging. SMS was just starting to become relevant, the texting craze hadn't taken off fully, and a smartphone ran PalmOS or Windows Mobile. At the time, it provided a nice way for people wary of other chat networks to stay in touch. Since it is built atop of opensource protocols (XMPP/Jabber), it has seen widespread adoption in clients. No matter what platform you are on, chances are, there is a client that supports Google Talk, either natively or via Jabber.

Yet thats all Google talk is. It still is primarily plain-text based, still doesn't offer much in the way of rich formatting (you can do bold and italics), and, apart from presence notifications, doesn't offer much feedback or status regarding message recipients.

Video and Audio

I don't go into much discussion about video and audio in this post, because they are very different than IM. Video and Audio calls are different than Instant Messages and text messages. They require a synchronization of parties, both parties have to stop other activities and engage in the conversation. In web terms, video/audio chat is “synchronous,” while text based communications are “asynchronous,” allowing people to engage in conversations as they see fit.

The competition

While the field of mobile-non-sms-text-based-communications (quite a mouthful) has a plethora of entries, I will be focusing on the major players, Apple and RIM. RIM is the longtime champion in this field. Blackberry messenger, RIM's IM client, is currently a Blackberry exclusive (there are noises that they are going to release it for other platforms), and has quite a bit of user loyalty behind it. So strong is this loyalty many users continue to use blackberry, despite the platform's increasing unattractiveness.

What makes BBM so unique? It can't do that much more than Google Talk, there isn't that much to text-based chat, is there? Not really. BBM does have features that Gtalk does not, however, and these features are something many users love. The most obvious is the “receipt” feature. Receipts let you see if a user has received a message, as well as even seeing if a message has been read. This solves the problem of sending someone a message, but never being quite sure if they have actually read it. Other features of BBM include geolocation, making it easy to share and send locations, and a fairly simple way of exchanging data, via PINs.

Apple is a recent entry into this field, with the launch of iMessage. iMessage serves mainly as a way of replacing SMS, which has numerous shortcomings. While some features work similar to BBM, such as delivery/read notifications, others are wildly different. The most significant part of iMessage is the zero-setup configuration. To the end user, sending an iMessage and sending a SMS message are indistinguishable, apart from a blue/green background on the bubble. The user doesn't have to add extra contact data to their accounts, they don't need to accept friend requests to chat, and they don't have to split themselves between apps for SMS and apps for IM. This absolute simplicity ensures that the maximum number of users possible (everyone with an iPhone) uses the feature.

What to do?

Every Android user has a Google account. Every Google account is a Google Talk account. But if you ask your average Android user about Gtalk, they will look at you with doe-eyes, unfamiliar with the term. The Talk icon, buried deep within the app drawer, is usually overlooked, mistaken for bloatware.

And Talk requires more initial effort to get set up than a text message. To send a SMS message, all one needs is a phone number. Thats it. To send a Gtalk message, one must first get the account name, usually in the form of an email address, then send a friend request, have the other party accept said request, and then begin chatting. This may not sound like much to the technically inclined, but to the lay user, its a pain that they rather not have to deal with.

Fixing talk doesn't require much effort, and the features could be released as extensions to the Jabber/XMPP protocol, benefiting the whole opensource community. First of all, Gtalk and SMS need to be integrated into one app. Take the Apple approach, and dump everything into a unified “Messager” application. Users don't care how they talk to someone, they just care that they are talking to someone. As services like Google+ grow, more people are likely to have rich contact entries. Use this data to allow people to add each other on Gtalk by simply exchanging a phone number. This will do the most to making talk better. Features such as read/delivery receipts are nice, and I would welcome them with open arms, but the initial entry barrier is the biggest issue to getting people to use Gtalk, and once that is overcome, the benefits will be immense.

Gtalk lets people chat from anywhere, be it a desktop application, a web browser, or a phone. The transitions between access points are seamless and invisible, very well done. But the other weaknesses cause this wonderful product to be underused. If these can be fixed, then Gtalk may be the next great IM service.