Google to upgrade video chat

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Google Apps users can expect to see significant improvements in the suite’s voice- and video-chat capabilities over the next six to12 months, as the company builds on Gmail’s current features.

Gmail’s voice and video chats are now limited to one-to-one communications; Google wants to extend that capability to more than two participants and make it more robust.

“This [current Gmail capability] is the first step in a much broader set of features we hope to roll out around video [and voice] chat capabilities,” said Rishi Chandra, a Google Apps product manager.

Apps, Google's Web-hosted communications and collaboration suite, is used by more than 20 million people in more than 2 million organizations.

In planning these enhancements, Google has decided not to add a separate application to the suite, Chandra said. Instead, the experience of launching a voice or video chat session should flow seamlessly from within Gmail and mesh organically with the other Apps components.

Google isn’t disclosing further details about its plans. The company acquired Web and video conferencing software from Swedish company Marratech in 2007.

Beefing up video and voice communications within Gmail is a good decision, said Forrester Research analyst Sheri McLeish, because e-mail remains the most-used enterprise application by information workers. In a recent Forrester survey of 2,001 information workers in the U.S., 87 percent said they use e-mail, and among those, almost all use it at least once every day. Almost 60 percent of respondents use it at least once every hour.

“People are in e-mail all the time, so efforts to offer solutions that sit outside of an inbox tend not to have tremendous success,” McLeish said.

Still, a significant spike in the ad-hoc use of multi-person video conferencing by thousands of end-users could have implications for the IT department, which may have to monitor network traffic and possibly provide more bandwidth, she said.

Google hasn’t yet decided whether to join other collaboration vendors in adding enterprise social-networking features to their software, bringing Twitter- and Facebook-like capabilities to a workplace setting.

“My feeling is that no one has really gotten it right,” Chandra said. “It’s one of the things we’re looking at to see if there’s a real opportunity there to improve how users communicate with each other and find information about other users.”

While it’s unclear whether Google Apps will even get an enterprise social-networking layer, Chandra offers some hints of what it could look like if it’s ever built. “Search has to be a critical aspect of it,” he said. In addition, those capabilities would likely be woven into Gmail, so that end-users wouldn't t have to go to a separate application to tune in to co-workers’ status updates and other notifications, he said.

A big benefit that enterprise social-networking layers can add to collaboration suites is a directory where employees create profiles stating their areas of expertise, McLeish said. “That can be a very useful thing, especially for an organization with thousands of employees when you’re trying to navigate and find the right resource” for a task or a project, she said.

Chandra points out that Apps users often create these profiles using the suite’s Sites application, which lets them build Web pages and sites whose content can then be searched.

Google has a consumer service called Google Profiles that seems close in functionality to these workplace “expertise badges,” but Chandra declined to say whether Google plans to adapt it for Apps.

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