Google adds video chat to Gmail

Google added a voice and video chat feature to Gmail today. The capability allows people who use the free e-mail service to click on a contact’s name and, provided their computers both have Web-cameras and microphones, talk face-to-face in a video conference.

Businesses who have bought an enterprise version of Gmail, found within the Google Apps software package, will also receive the feature for no extra money.

Google believes the voice and video feature will capitalize on the low barrier-to- entry to Web conferencing created in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of Web-based applications and cameras that have been built into computers as a standard feature.

“It opens up opportunities that weren’t there before,” says Rajen Sheth, the senior product manager at Google Enterprise, which oversees Google Apps. “And just from a Web-browser, you can initiate this functionality.”

A Gmail user who wants to use the service also must install a small plug-in (only a couple of megabytes in size) to his or her Web-browser. Gmail runs in Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Safari.

By launching the video chat feature, Google dips its toes into a market occupied by technology vendors new and old, including IBM, which sells a video functionality around instant messaging in its Lotus Sametime software, and Skype, a free service that allows people to video conference and place phone calls over the Web.

In addition to Google’s business customers, Gmail caters to a large consumer base of what’s estimated to be tens of millions. According to Sheth, the decision to add the feature stemmed from user feedback in both markets.

“We’ve gotten strong feedback from consumers as well as businesses: text chat is only one way they want to communicate in real time with other people,” Sheth says. “Voice and video is the next logical step, and they wanted it to connect to their Web mail.”

The addition of video bolsters Google’s headstart over Microsoft in providing a fully Web-based package of producitivity applications – one that extends just beyond e-mail, word-processing and spreadsheets.

Since Google Apps launched in February, 2007, it has added a wiki technology (known at Google Sites) that allows people to build both internal and externally facing websites with no programming experience, a presentation application (think: PowerPoint), and the ability to upload and share video (think: YouTube for businesses).

Though Microsoft announced nearly two weeks ago that it was creating a Web-based Google Apps competitor, dubbed Office 14, it will not ready until late 2009.

Why it matters

For some of us, a video icon in Gmail’s chat sidebar might not be such a biggie. However, looking at the bigger picture, Gmail’s new video chat feature reiterates Google’s struggle to catch up with its bigger competitors, the likes of Microsoft Live Mail and Yahoo Mail.

Even though Google basically revolutionized personal webmail four years ago when it launched with 1GB of storage space, Gmail is still far behind competition when it comes to numbers. According to the latest ComScore figures, Gmail is only the third-largest email service worldwide, with 113 million users, while Microsoft Live mail is on top with 283 million users, closely followed by Yahoo Mail with 274 million.

In a bid to gain a larger user base, Google rolled out integrated video and audio chat feature for Gmail.

But what’s so special about video and audio chat in Gmail? Surely others do video or chat better…

Well, the difference is that both Microsoft and Yahoo offer video and audio chat with their instant messaging services but it’s not integrated with their webmail platform. Also, Skype is another popular video calling application, but its offering is limited only to that.

Google’s approach to Gmail is different in many ways. Video and audio chat is built-in into Gmail together with regular text chat, making your inbox a central point of communications, instead of having to open various windows and applications at the same time. Gmail video chat is almost universal, working with most browsers (ironically the feature does not work with Google’s own Chrome at the moment) on both PCs and Macs.

Gmail’s new video and audio calling feature definitely sets aside Google’s email service from competition. Now a one-stop communications hub, Gmail will certainly become ever more popular among both email and avid chat users.

While other upcoming (or delayed) features such as SMS Chat in Gmail will again raise the bar against competition, Google’s Android based mobile phones could also help increase Gmail’s popularity.

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