Google is rolling out upgraded features and an improved experience to some of its biggest web apps—including Gmail and Google Docs—while at the same time also transforming the apps that consumers use for instant messaging.
You may have seen mentions of Google Chat and Google Workspace and wondered exactly what was going on, and that's what we're here to explain. In short, everyone's Google experience is getting an overhaul, and you can start trying it now.
Google being Google, the changes aren't all that easy to understand, but the best place to start is with the new (but also old) instant messaging app: Google Chat.
A Brief History of Google's Messaging Apps
We're not going to go all the way back to the beginning here, but a little history will help you understand why these apps are changing. In many ways the messaging platforms are key to the upgrades Google is planning for this year and beyond.
You're probably most familiar with Google Hangouts if you use a Google app to send instant messages to friends and family—it's Hangouts that up until very recently has been sitting in the corner of Gmail on the web. Hangouts is also available on the web as a separate app, and on mobile platforms.
At one point it seemed as though Hangouts would end up being Google's all-encompassing messaging app for everything (it even supported SMS at one stage). In 2017, four years after Hangouts launched, Google introduced Hangouts Chat (for text) and Hangouts Meet (for video calls): business-focused spinoffs of Hangouts for paying users of G Suite, formerly known as Google Apps.
G Suite is another product you need to know about—it's now called Google Workspace, and it's all the tools that everyone gets for free (Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and so on) wrapped up with some extras for businesses and teams—extras like managing web domains and contact databases. This is a paid-for collection of apps, and it might well be what your current employer uses.
Originally born out of Hangouts, Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet have now been rebranded as Google Chat and Google Meet, and are coming full circle to replace Hangouts for consumers as well as companies. If you think this sounds confusing, welcome to Google's messaging app strategy over the last few years.
Google Chat and Google Meet do offer a few upgrades over Hangouts. Google Chat is more like Slack or Microsoft Teams than iMessage or WhatsApp, offering easy access to features such as file sharing and chatting in groups, while Google Meet is a comprehensive video calling application in the Zoom mold. There are rumors that Google Meet will eventually edge out Google Duo, Google's other video calling app, though that hasn't happened yet.
If your head isn't already spinning, there's just one more bit of important information: Google Workspace (previously called G Suite, previously a paid-for package for businesses) is now going to be expanded to everyone with a Google account, offering improved integration between the multitude of Google apps available on the web and on mobile.
What's Happening Now
There are two main changes that Google is pushing through during the rest of this year. First, Google Chat and Google Meet are replacing Hangouts—in the corner of Gmail on the web, on your phone, and everywhere else. Your previous Hangouts chats should be carried over, and in part this will be just a rebranding exercise: Activate Google Chat in Gmail, install the app on your phone, and you can carry on with Google Chat where you left off with Hangouts, down to the individual conversations.
As we've said, there are going to be some extra features, forged during the time these apps have spent as business products. You'll get new tools, like being able to @mention contacts on documents or build up conversations with multiple threads, and so on—only you'll be using them with family members and friends rather than colleagues from work.
Second, and very much along the same theme, a more lightweight version of the business Workspace package is going to be accessible to everyone with a Google account over the coming months. As with Google Chat and Google Meet, this is Google giving consumers some more professional-level tools, only the idea is that they get used for your local PTA meeting, your weekly book club, or your family reunion.
These upgrades won't be huge, but they will be noticeable. You'll still have access to Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, and so on, as you always have, but they'll be linked together even more closely, and built for collaboration and sharing. For example, you'll be able to create a checklist of tasks and assign each task to a different contact. A lot of the new functions will be partly powered by Google Chat, which is the thread running through everything.
It's appropriate, then, that you can activate Google Workspace for your account by turning on Google Chat in Gmail: From the Chat and Meet tab of the Gmail Settings page, select Google Chat next to Chat. Although it's taken us a long time to explain what's happening, in terms of what you'll see as a user there isn't going to be a huge swathe of changes: The tools you already use will get a few upgrades, a cleaner look, and better integration with each other. (Oh, and you might see the word "Workspace" more often.)
This switch will be available to everyone, for free, but later this year we'll get Google Workspace Individual, a subscription for $10 a month that will be aimed at freelancers and entrepreneurs, which will offer additional tools such as email marketing and smart booking services, powered by Google's AI tools. It's a sort of halfway point between consumers who use Google's apps for free and businesses with large Workspace teams.
You can stick with Hangouts and a non-Workspace experience for a little while longer, but Google is only going in one direction with this, and it's taking everyone along with it—paying and non-paying users alike. Google Chat (and Google Meet) and Workspace are coming for everyone, which should mean an improved experience and more features for users, even if the changes take some getting used to. For more details, check out Google's blog posts on Google Chat and Google Workspace.