The Internet search leader Google has been adding more bells and whistles to Gmail as part of its effort to gain ground on the longtime leaders, Microsoft and Yahoo in free e-mail.
Latest on the list are video and audio chat features, called Gmail Video and Voice. With this, Google aims to capitalise on the growing popularity of videoconferencing, which consumers use to chat with friends and companies rely on to reduce travel costs and connect employees in multiple locations. Here's looking into what and whys of Gmail Video and Voice.
Gmail and Google App subscribers can now choose to speak with friends on a video screen and simultaneously instant message them in a Google Chat box. The video screen can be popped out of the chat box and moved around a user's computer screen. Users can also change the size of the screen and expand it to full-screen size.
The condition being that both the user and his contact have computers equipped with Web cameras 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 cost.
A Gmail user who wants to use the service must install a small plug-in (a 2.4 megabyte download) to his Web browser.
As for the process, Google says: To get started, open a Gmail chat window, click on the "Options" menu at the bottom, and choose "Add voice/video chat," which will walk you through the installation of a free plug-in. When you re-open Gmail you'll notice your "Options" link in your chat window has changed to "Video & more." Open this menu and click "Start video chat" to see and hear your partner in high-quality video. You can pop out the video and change its size and position, or switch to full screen.
Once the additional software is installed, Gmail users will be given the option to see and hear each other without leaving the e-mail application. The video feature will work only if all the participants have Gmail accounts. Also, after installation a user must restart his browser(s).
As far as the browser is concerned, the new features are supported in Chrome, Firefox versions 2.0 and higher, Internet Explorer 7 and up, and Safari 3.0.
Unlike many current video chat products, Gmail Video and Voice uses a proprietary plug-in, not Flash. As of now, the video chat service will not be made available within the standalone Google Talk application.
To check if a user has it, he needs to open a chat with someone (need not necessarily message them). If his account is video-enabled, at the lower left of the chat window, there will be an interface element labeled "Video & more." When clicked on, it will walk him through installing the plug-in. To make a video call to someone who hasn't yet installed the plug-in, he will be able to invite them to do so.
To use the video or voice chat, PC users will need WinXP or higher, and Mac users will need an Intel-based machine running at least OS 10.4.
By adding voice and video chat, Google seems to be going up against Skype, which has made video chat one of its main features in the latest version of its software.
While the Gmail voice and video chat features are built into the Gmail window, there is a one-time download-and-install of a plug-in that allows the feature to run within Gmail, Skype is a downloaded client and not Web-based.
Also, Gmail Video and Voice can't connect to the plain phone network, as Skype's paid service can. Many other optional features too are missing, like a voice call recorder.
As for similar features: Users can switch to full-screen mode, or pop out the video and change its size and position just like in Skype.
Google's new product, to be rolled out over the next couple of days, is made possible by the company's acquisition last year of video conferencing software from Marratech and a licensing agreement with Vidyo, a New Jersey startup.
In the US, Google has partnered with Logitech and Buy.com to offer discounts of up to 30 per cent on several cameras, as well as free shipping, until November 30.
Video chatting has long been available through the instant messaging services offered by Yahoo and Microsoft, but the feature isn't available in their free e-mail applications.
Interestingly, Google Talk, Google's desktop chat programme does not have any video functionality so far, though Google enabled voice chat for GoogleTalk long time back.
Last month, Yahoo announced it was providing programmers the software instructions they need to write applications that can extend the features of Yahoo mail. Ash Patel, executive vice president of the audience product division, said that the goal was to help hundreds of millions of users "communicate better and get more done."
Microsoft has also been upgrading its communication platform known as Windows Live.
Other than eBay's Skype, video chat has also been the focus of a number of start-ups like Paltalk, Stickam and Camfrog.
Adding voice and video chat for Gmail shows Google means business beyond YouTube when it comes to online video. In September, the company launched Google Video for businesses to help enterprises with corporate training and to serve as a new vehicle for company executives to communicate with employees. Google Video for businesses leverages the cloud computing infrastructure that the company employs for YouTube.
Though with these apps, Google is unlikely to challenge Microsoft SharePoint, Cisco WebEx Connect or IBM Lotus Sametime overnight, however, the features are sure to give Google an edge as a SAAS (software as a service) provider in the current trying financial times.
The addition of video also strengthens Google's lead over Microsoft in providing a fully Web-based package of productivity applications, one that goes beyond email, word-processing and spreadsheets. Microsoft too recently announced that it is developing a Web-based Google Apps competitor, dubbed Office 14; however, it is unlikely to be released before late 2009.
Although Mountain View, California-based Google has been making strides since it began welcoming all comers to Gmail early last year, it remains a distant third with nearly 113 million worldwide users through September -- a 34 per cent increase from the previous year, according to comScore Inc.
Microsoft's e-mail services boasted 283 million worldwide users, up 13 per cent from the previous year, while Yahoo was a close second at 274 million, an 8 per cent gain, comScore said.
6 months ago