Beware of Chrome Desktop Apps With Multiple Accounts

Hangouts-FrownIf you use multiple Google accounts and try Google’s new Chrome Desktop Apps, particularly Hangouts, be sure to install it on all of your Google accounts. I realized this when my USB headset “stopped working” with Google Voice last week and I couldn’t fix it. This happens from time to time, usually when Google stealths out big changes to the Hangouts plugin. It usually resolves itself after I reauthorize the plugin to use the camera and microphone again. This time, however, that and none of the other regular tricks worked.

The problem took some digging, but it turns out that the Desktop App configuration on one Chrome Profile will silently override the plug-in or web configuration on other profiles that don’t have the Desktop App version. The Hangouts device settings for one account (which are only visible when actually in a hangout–how dumb is that?) showed Headset for I/O but were being silently overridden by the other account’s Default I/O settings. Very confusing and frustrating.

To be fair, Google does give some warning in the Hangouts support pages–if you know to look. If you don’t have a different image for each Google account, you might not notice that the instructions on signing out didn’t actually work and it’s more an issue of signing into multiple accounts. It’s generally handy to set different profile pictures and themes on each account, even the one in Gmail / Settings / My Picture.

A Good Idea, But …

One continuing annoyance I have with Google and Cloud-based services in general is stealth updates. In the cloud, I have no control of what versions of software I use, and I usually don’t even know when anything has changed. This seems like a good idea, even the holy grail of large IT organizations managing tens of thousands of desktops. The advantages of having all my data in one place but accessible from many devices and locations convinced me to live with that chronic pain of not being completely sure what my applications will look like or how they will behave from day to day.

The other pain associated with the cloud is using web apps instead of desktop apps. So far only Gmail itself gives me a better experience than desktop apps, as trying to use again reminded me. Google is feeling the limits of web apps and is trying to get a foothold on the desktop, and this bug was symptomatic of Google trying to get there.

The Chrome browser was their beachhead, and Chrome Profiles were the next logical step in solving multiple account issues on the desktop that they more-or-less already solved in the Web. Chrome’s duality as browser and operating system is really clever; the browser they got everybody to install on their existing computers running Windows or OS X effectively becomes a virtual machine manager for an ecosystem of accounts and applications of their own making.

Unfortunately as clever as Google is, something as ambitious and complex as stealthing an entire virtual operating system onto everybody’s computers requires as much or more persistence than cleverness. Google’s fickle attitude towards other ambitious projects makes me wonder if they can find the commitment to make Desktop Apps a survivor like Gmail, or it it’s doomed to the dust bin like Plus and Reader and Wave and many others before it.


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