Google, for all its skill in the realms of mobile search, advertising, email, and even operating systems, has never been particularly good at the social thing. Even now, I suspect, someone at Google is fuming at the notion that the company "isn't very good" at messaging or social networks and pointing animatedly at the tens of millions of Google+ and Hangouts users. The problem is and has always been that for whatever success Google has had in social and messaging platforms, it is constantly undercut by the actions of Google itself that say otherwise. There is near-yearly reworking, redesigning, or branching off of these products in ways that very strongly suggest they aren't getting the results Google's Alphabet overlords consider acceptable.
And that brings us to today's almost are-you-serious-level-of-annoying (at least on the surface) rumor: Google is apparently building another messaging service. No, this is not satire. The Wall Street Journal is reporting in substantial detail that the new chat service will focus heavily on chatbots - yes, really, and again, this is 100% serious - which will use contextual clues to answer users' questions on the fly, or provide responses to direct inquiries. The end product is something that sounds more like a mashup of Google Now On Tap and Messenger than it does Hangouts, and the chatbot aspect seems to be the real crux of the service.
You can read WSJ's piece, but let me give you my interpretation, because it's very easy to focus on the messaging aspect and miss what, based on the descriptions provided, is actually much more of a hybrid product. And before we get there: no, there is zero information as to how this new service would relate to Hangouts or Messenger. But, Google has apparently been working on it for at least a year now.
The main takeaway is this: Google believes that automated information-fetching tools like chatbots and other AI that can provide you valuable information in context without ever leaving a conversation or app could start to displace search traffic. Which is Google's monetary lifeblood via advertisements. This new messaging service would seek to use Google's unrivaled search and predictive algorithms as the "silver bullet" against all other messaging platforms trying to keep users in their apps with similar contextual data tools.
The new messaging platform would suggest various chatbots of different purposes to users based on their messages (which, duh, means consenting to Google reading your conversations), and Google would likely develop an API to allow outside developers to create their own chatbots for something of a chatbot marketplace. If this sounds incredibly strange, think of it this way: this seems a lot like the "B" test to Google Now On Tap's "A." Now On Tap is all about providing answers or solutions based on context in any situation. The problem is that Now On Tap is passive, and users have to actively engage with the service for it to be useful. By integrating contextual data directly and actively into a messaging service, Google can show users the power of these tools more often and with less required interaction from the user. The pie-in-the-sky hope, obviously, is that the value of this contextual data eventually becomes as indispensable as Google Search itself. (And that said data will contain or lead to Google ads.)
Would such a feature really make for a messaging service so compelling that Google could successfully compete with messaging giants like Facebook, WhatsApp, LINE, WeChat, and increasingly, iMessage? Yeah, I'm probably about as skeptical as you are there - it seems pretty unlikely. And the idea of a third Google chat client is borderline-obnoxious. But whether this new service will come to fruition as part of Hangouts, Messenger, or a standalone remains to be seen, and there's no guarantee it'll ever come out at all. If anything, this story has spawned a hell of a lot of questions, and I think it may be a while yet before we can start piecing together answers that will help us wrap our collective heads around it.