Gmail users soon will be able to launch a video session as easily as they send an instant message.
Back in the early '90s, I used to work for Verizon when it was known as GTE. The company was in the process of computerizing a lot of its operations, and many people were bemoaning the fact that it was laying off most of its operators. Company executives foresaw a competitive landscape in the future, and they were desperately trying to figure out a way to get into broadband communications. The problem was that much of the telephone infrastructure was based on twisted-pair, and it didn't offer enough bandwidth to carry video, being designed a century earlier to handle only telephone calls.
Fortunately for the phone companies, they came up with DSL technology that allowed businesses and homeowners to access the Internet using existing copper telephone wires. While our nation's telephone infrastructure is not exactly elegant, it was expensive to install and today is worth its weight in gold for its reliability. In part because of their proven reliability, traditional Bell companies have been able to hold on during an upheaval in their traditional markets. Nevertheless, I know dozens of people who have given up their land lines and rely solely on their cell phones. These too are operated by Verizon, of course, and other land-line companies that have entered the wireless business. Telephone operators may have a tough time in the future, however, hanging onto their business customers as they switch over to VOIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol. The reason, of course, is that it's so much cheaper to use the Internet for calls than it is traditional telephone service, and business lines represent a huge source of income to traditional phone companies. (It's somewhat encouraging though to see Verizon's new FIOS fiber-optic service competing very favorably in price with cable and satellite entertainment services).
Using the Internet to make a call has been slow to gain traction partly because phone companies have reduced their long-distance rates and partly because making the call through your computer has been tricky, inconvenient, and lacking in speed when compared to "picking up the phone." I have a Skype account, but I rarely use it since my long-distance calls are billed at a flat rate. And I'm not too eager to put on a headset whenever I want to make a telephone call, not to mention logging onto a Skype account with yet another user ID and password I can't remember. The service does work, however, clear as a bell, and millions of people use it. And I have too, though more for contacting people in remote areas who are out of cell phone range.
Next week, Google is launching a new service that may take another chunk of business away from traditional telephone companies, though they would be the last ones to say so. Called Gmail Voice and Video chat, the new service lets you have free voice and video conversations right from within Gmail. The thing about Google's new service that is characteristic of all of its offerings is that it's simple to use and convenient to access. It makes video chatting from Gmail about as simple as sending an instant message. You can argue that you don't always want to have people looking at you in your pajamas when you're on the telephone, but there's no getting around the fact that video is far more stimulating than audio alone. (You can launch a one-way video and two-way audio as well.) So not only do you now get a Web-based telephone call that works seamlessly with your email service, but you get the quantum leap into video. As with most Google services, it's free for individuals. So what Google has done is collect all major communications channels--including email, chat, voice, and video--under one roof. And soon it will add SMS text messaging to the mix for a package even businesses might find intriguing.
The major limitation that Google has, however, is it has no interface to the standard phone system. Skype, of course, does allow you to call users on ordinary phones, providing you pay a nominal fee. While there is no cumbersome application to install to utilize Google's Voice and Video chat, you do need to download a small plug-in in order for it to work. And, of course, you will need a Gmail account, which is free (http://www.gmail.com/). The plug-in can be obtained from www.gmail.com/videochat or click on the Options menu in the Gmail chat window and choose "Add voice & video chat."
Google developers say their objective with the new service was to make voice and video chat an "easy-to-use, seamless experience" with high-quality audio and video--all for free. They have also accomplished this using Internet standards such as XMPP, RTP, and H.264, which should give third-party applications and networks the ability to interoperate with the Google voice and video service. Voice and Video chat rolls out next Tuesday, and you probably will not be able to access it before that time, even though you can download the plug-in in advance. I was unable to bring up the "Video and More" setting in my chat section of Gmail even though my user settings indicated my Webcam was active and working and I showed a "camera icon" next to my user name. I expect these all will fall into place and the service will work when it is rolled out early next week.
Many of us who are used to Lotus Notes and the emerging Lotus collaboration products admittedly don't necessarily care for free services such as Google. This is due to the advertising, cookies, and security issues that surround them. Yet these consumer services nevertheless have proven to be portents of future business applications. With the tightening economy and high cost of travel--particularly air travel--it behooves us to start thinking about money-saving ways to utilize these novel applications in the context of our businesses, where they ultimately will prove their true value.