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Google is making Meet free for everyone

Google today announced that it is making Meet, its video meeting tool for businesses that directly competes with the likes of Zoom, available for free to everyone. Until now, you could participate in a Meet call without being a paying user, but you needed a paid G Suite account to start calls.

You won’t be able to schedule free Meet calls right away, though. Google is opening up access to Meet to free users gradually, starting next week. It may take a few weeks before everybody has access to it.

After September, free accounts will be limited to meetings that don’t run longer than 60 minutes, but until then, you can chat for as long as you want. The only other real limit is that meetings can’t have more than 100 participants. You still get screen sharing, real-time captions and the new tiled layout the company introduced only a few days ago.

Users will need a Google account to participate in meetings, though, which isn’t likely to be a major barrier for most people, but it does add more friction than simply clicking on a Zoom link.

Google argues that in return, you get a safer platform, not just because it’s hard to guess meeting codes for Meet (which makes “Meet-bombing” a non-starter), but also because Meet runs in the browser and is hence less vulnerable to security threats.

“With COVID, video conferencing is really becoming an essential service and we have seen video conferencing usage really go up,” Smita Hashim, the Director of Product Management at Google Cloud, told me. Because the need for these tools continues to increase, Google decided to bring Meet to individual users now, though Hashim noted that some of this had been on the company’s roadmap before.

“We are accelerating what we are doing, given the crisis and given the need for video conferencing at this point,” she said. “We still have the Google Hangouts product but Google Meet availability we are accelerating. This is a newer product designed to scale to many more participants and that has features like closed captioning and those kinds of things.”

So for the time being, Hangouts for consumers and also Google Duo aren’t going away. But at least for consumer Hangouts, which has been on life support for a long time, this move may accelerate its deprecation.

Clearly, Google saw that Zoom caught on among consumers and that Microsoft announced plans for a consumer edition of Teams. Without a free and easily accessible version of Meet, Google wasn’t able to fully capitalize on what has become a breakout time for video conferencing tools, so it makes sense for the company to make a push to get this new edition out of the door as fast as possible.

“From a leadership perspective, the message was really: how can Google be more and more helpful,” Hashim said when I asked her what the discussion about this move was like inside the company. “That was the direction we got. So from our side, video conferencing is the product which is really hugely accelerated usage and Google Meet in particular. So that’s why we first launched the advanced features, then we did the safety controls and then we said, okay, let’s accelerate some of these other features, but we kept seeing that need so it felt like a very natural next step for us to take and make it available to all our users.”

In addition to free access to Google Meet for everyone, Google is also launching a new edition of G Suite, dubbed G Suite Essentials. This new edition, which is meant for small teams and includes access to Google Drive, Docs, Sheet, Slides and, of course, Meet, will be available for free until September 30. After that, Google will start charging, but as Hashim told me, the company hasn’t decided on pricing yet.

For enterprise users, Google is also adding a few perks through September 30. These include free access to advanced Meet features for all G Suite customers, including the ability to live stream to up to 100,000 viewers within their domains, as well as free additional Meet licenses without the need for an amended contract, and free G Suite Essentials for enterprise customers.

Google also used today’s announcement to share a few new stats around Meet. As of last week, Meet’s daily meeting participants surpassed 100 million, for example, and with that, Meet now plays host to 3 billion minutes of video meetings. Daily peak usage is up 30x since January. That’s a lot of time spent in meetings.

Google Meet launches improved Zoom-like tiled layout, low-light mode and more

Google Meet, like all video chat products, is seeing rapid growth in user numbers right now, so it’s no surprise that Google is trying to capitalize on this and quickly iterating on its product. Today, it is officially launching a set of new features that include a more Zoom-like tiled layout, a low-light mode for when you have to make calls at night, and the ability to present a single Chrome tab instead of a specific window or your entire screen. Soon, Meet will also get built-in noise cancellation so nobody will hear your dog bark in the background.

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it’s probably because G Suite exec Javier Soltero already talked to Reuters about these features last week. Google PR is usually pretty straightforward, but in this case, it moved in mysterious ways. Today, though, these features are actually starting to roll out to users, a Google spokesperson told me, and today’s announcement does actually provide more details about each of these features.

For the most part, what’s being announced here is obvious. The tiled layout allows web users to see up to 16 participants at once. Previously, that number was limited to four and Google promises it will offer additional layouts for larger meetings and better presentation layouts, as well as support for more devices in the future.

For the most part having this many people stare at me from my screen doesn’t seem necessary (and more likely to induce stress than anything else), but the ability to present a single Chrome tab is surely a welcome new feature for many. But what’s probably just as important is that this means you can share higher-quality video content from these tabs than before.

If you often take meetings in the dark, low-light mode uses AI to brighten up your video. Unlike some of the other features, this one is coming to mobile first and will come to web users in the future.

Personally, I’m mostly excited about the new noise cancellation feature. Typically, noise cancelation works best for noises that repeat and are predictable. Think about the constant drone of an airplane or your neighbor’s old lawnmower. But Google says Meet can now go beyond this and also cancel out barking dogs and your noise keystrokes. That’s increasingly become table stakes, with even Discord offering similar capabilities and Nvidia RTX Voice now making this available in a slew of applications for users of its high-end graphics cards, but it’s nice to see this as a built-in feature for Meet now.

This feature will only roll out in the coming weeks and will initially be available to G Suite Enterprise and G Suite Enterprise for Education users on the web, with mobile support coming later.

Google pitches free trials of its enterprise G Suite conferencing tools as part of a coronavirus response

Google said in a blog post that it would roll out free access to advanced Hangouts Meet video-conferencing capabilities to all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers globally as the company pitches its remote work tools as an option for companies looking to let employees work from home.

Chief executive Sundar Pichai announced the initiative in a tweet on Tuesday.

“As more employees, educators, and students work remotely in response to the spread of COVID-19, we want to do our part to help them stay connected and productive, ” the company wrote in its post. “And, as more businesses adjust their work-from-home policies and adopt reduced travel plans in response to COVID-19, we’re helping to ensure that all globally distributed teams can still reliably meet face to face, even if employees are not in the same location.”

Google’s move comes as some of the largest industry conferences and events around the world are cancelling due to fears of the spreading new coronavirus, COVID-19. Major canceled events include: GSMA’s Mobile World Congress and Facebook’s F8 conference along with the Geneva Motor Show and the Game Developers Conference.

It’s not just conferences that are closing their doors. Companies are also doing everything that they can to encourage remote work. Twitter has encouraged its workers to operate remotely and they’re not alone. Stripe, Slack, Square and others are all urging their employees to not come in to the office.

Google’s pitch to companies and educational institutions during the trial is free access for capabilities including for larger meetings of up to 250 participants per-call; live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers within a domain; and the ability to record meetings and save them to Google Drive.

Google is enabling all of its customers to use the enterprise functionality for no additional cost until July 1, the company said in a statement.

“We’re committed to supporting our users and customers during this challenging time, and are continuing to scale our infrastructure to support greater Hangouts Meet demand, ensuring streamlined, reliable access to the service throughout this period.”

The company already has one happy customer for its services in Jack Dorsey and Twitter. The embattled chief executive wrote in a tweet, “We just held our first fully virtual Twitter global all-hands using @Google Meet and @SlackHQ.”