Google Nov. 11 continued boosting the value of its Web e-mail application by launching voice and video chat for Gmail.
The feature, which could put to rest speculation that Google will buy Skype-why buy in this suspect economy when you can build?-lets users converse with and see their contacts on their desktop computers in real time. Users can initiate these sessions right from Gmail without moving to another application.
With a Webcam and a Web browser plug-in, users can start video chats with other Gmail users, Google Apps Senior Product Manager Rajen Sheth told eWEEK. If you don't have a Webcam, you can still use the conversation chat feature unless for some reason your computer is mute (no microphone).
Adding voice and video chat for Gmail shows Google means business beyond YouTube when it comes to online video. The company's Google Apps team Sept. 2 launched Google Video for businesses to help enterprises with corporate training and to serve as a new vehicle for company executives to use to get the message to employees.
What does Google's feature path point to? It further cements the role of Gmail as a vital communications tool for consumers and businesses. "It continues to move Gmail into a more complete messaging and communication solution and adds functionality to Web mail that's never been there before," Sheth noted.
It remains to be seen whether users need this functionality in Web mail. Still, thanks to the widespread availability of broadband, software makers have increasingly factored video into UCC (unified communications and collaboration) portfolios. UCC is especially valuable in this uncertain economy for companies looking to cut costs by holding Web conferences from remote locations.
New Gmail features such as Docs and Calendar gadgets, the Gmail chat via SMS (Short Message Service) feature, and now this video and voice chat tool indicate that Gmail is becoming a UCC platform that could help Google Apps prove more viable for businesses down the road.
While it's not going to challenge Microsoft SharePoint, Cisco WebEx Connect or IBM Lotus Sametime overnight, Google Apps may well enter into the conversation for companies that don't want to pay for UCC software. Again, this could give Google an edge as a SAAS (software as a service) provider in trying financial times. Sheth said:
"As businesses are getting more and more distributed, as well as cost-conscious, this gives them a low-cost, efficient way to connect with each other and see each other face to face even if they have multiple locations."
To start using the Gmail voice and video chat tool, which ReadWriteWeb also describes here, users must open a Gmail chat window, click on the "Options" menu and choose "Add voice/video chat." Users will be instructed to install a 2MB plug-in.
When users reopen Gmail they'll see that the "Options" link in the chat window has changed to "Video & more." Users may open this menu and click "Start video chat" to see and hear their partner. It has features similar to those in the popular Skype VOIP application: Users can switch to full-screen mode, or pop out the video and change its size and position.
Sheth said the feature is being rolled out to Gmail and broader Google Apps users over the next day or two on PCs and Macs. PC users must have Windows XP or a more recent version. Mac users must have an Intel-based machine with Mac OS X v10.4 or later.
The feature works in browsers that support the latest version of Gmail, including Google Chrome, Firefox 2.0 and higher, Internet Explorer 7.0, and Safari 3.0.