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Google adds voice, video chat to Gmail, Google Apps

Videoconference tool will appeal to consumers, business, Google says

By C.G. Lynch
November 11, 2008 12:00 PM ET

CIO - Google Inc. 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 talk face-to-face with the contact in a videoconference -- as long as both the user and his contact have computers equipped with webcameras and microphones.

Businesses that have bought an enterprise version of Gmail, found within the Google Apps software package, will also receive the feature at no extra charge.

Google believes that the voice and video features will benefit from the fact that webconferencing has become easier in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of Web-based applications and cameras that have been built into computers as standard features.

"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 must install a small plug-in (only a couple of megabytes in size) to his Web-browser. Gmail runs in Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Safari and Google's Chrome beta.

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

In addition to Google's business customers, Gmail caters to a large consumer base that has been estimated to be in the 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 head start over Microsoft Corp. in providing a fully Web-based package of productivity applications -- one that extends beyond e-mail, word-processing and spreadsheets.

Since Google Apps launched in February, 2007, it has added a wiki technology (known as Google Sites) that allows people to build both internal- and external-facing Web sites 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, that application won't be ready until late 2009.

This story is reprinted from CIO.com, an online resource for information executives. Story Copyright CXO Media Inc., 2012. All rights reserved.
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