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(Reuters) — Google will allow business and education users on Gmail to directly take calls on its video conferencing tool Meet, starting Thursday. The new feature is being offered as the Alphabet unit seeks to capitalize on security and other concerns with rival services. The integration of Meet with email is the first of several features being launched ahead of schedule because of a surge in demand for video conferencing, Google vice president Javier Soltero told Reuters.
Meet, which is available only to schools, businesses, and governments and is distinct from the consumer-focused Hangouts tool, has added daily users faster than any other Google service since January. Millions of institutions now are relying on Meet because of lockdowns associated with the coronavirus, the company said. Other functionalities will be added later this month, Soltero said. Meet will offer a layout displaying up to 16 call participants at once, resembling a popular option on rival Zoom that its users have compared to a grid in the opening sequence of American TV show Brady Bunch. In addition, Meet will improve video quality in dim lighting and filtering of background noise, such as keyboard clicks and slamming doors.
Soltero declined to specify Meet’s user growth rate but said a recent peak was 60% more users compared to a day earlier. Google announced last Thursday that Meet, which is available on a desktop browser or through mobile apps, was adding 2 million new users per day and had more than 100 million education users across 150 countries.
Google is not charging customers for upgrades to Meet-related features like large video calls during a six-month period ending in September. The policy, which is aimed at winning over customers in the long run, could add to the strain on Google’s profits at a time when its ads sales business is taking a hit.
Video chatting tools from Microsoft, Zoom, and Cisco have also reported record growth since lockdowns began. But some companies and schools later banned Zoom over security issues it has since tried to fix, while Microsoft and Cisco services can be more challenging for first-time users to harness.
Soltero said Google has benefited from swiftly delivering new features in the last month. “I’ve seen time and time again customers and prospects coming from other solutions that have not been able to keep up or had concerns in security and reliability,” Soltero said, pointing to New York City public schools’ jump to Meet from Zoom as an example. Google last month gave educators greater control over who could join calls, weeks before Zoom introduced similar features to curb a practice dubbed “Zoombombing” in which strangers effectively hacked into meetings and classes to disrupt them. A forthcoming Meet option, Soltero told Reuters, will let users display a specific tab on their Google Chrome browser, a more granular screen-sharing option than Zoom and others provide.
Zoom has blamed some of its security issues on unexpectedly broad usage of its free version. Google’s Soltero described not developing safeguards for free tools as “inherently wrong.”
But he acknowledged that Hangouts, Google’s free video conferencing service for non-business users, lacks security and meeting control features that are available in Meet. As a result, some people in recent weeks have used their corporate or school Meet accounts to host non-work social gatherings. Soltero said Google is working on streamlining features across the services “so the products they use at work, they can use at home.”
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