Google Apps will get stronger video chat capabilities

Among the enhancements will be the ability to do video conferencing with more than two participants

Google Apps users can expect to see significant improvements in the suite's voice- and video-chat capabilities, as the company builds on Gmail's current features in that area.

Gmail's voice and video chats are now limited to one-to-one communications, but Google wants to broaden that capability to more than two participants and make it more robust all around for Apps.

"This [current Gmail capability] is the first step in a much broader set of features we hope to roll out over the next six to 12 months around video [and voice] chat capabilities," said Rishi Chandra, a Google Apps product manager. "It's a great opportunity for us to push that space along."

Apps, a Web-hosted communication and collaboration suite for workplaces, 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. "It should be embedded in the core experience across the application set," he said.

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

Beefing up video and voice communications within Gmail is a good decision because e-mail remains the most-used enterprise application by information workers, said Sheri McLeish, a Forrester Research analyst.

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 use of multi-person video conferences on an ad hoc basis by thousands of end-users could have implications for the IT department, which may have to monitor network traffic and possibly provision more bandwidth, she said.

One area that Google hasn't yet decided how to approach, if at all, is the popular trend among collaboration vendors of adding enterprise social-networking features to their software, adapting 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, the user experience would likely be woven into Gmail, so that end-users don'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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