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On Google Meet & the Race to Zero

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March and April have proven to be extraordinary months for conferencing solutions. Most of the world suddenly embraced conferencing to facilitate urgent work-at-home initiatives during the pandemic. As a result, most of the conferencing providers have seen huge upticks in usage and revenue.
 
In Google’s G Suite, the conferencing application is called Google Meet. It too has seen an increase in usage recently. “Last week, we surpassed a significant milestone. We are now adding roughly three million new users each day and have seen a thirty-fold increase in usage since January. There are now over 100 million daily Meet meeting participants,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said yesterday on the company’s Q1 earnings call.
 
That’s impressive, but still much smaller an increase than at Zoom, which about a week ago reported 300 million daily meeting participants. That may be why Google is giving Meet some overdue attention. Google this week made several Meet-related announcements, including a new free version.
 
First, let me clarify what Meet is and is not. Meet is not the same as Hangouts, Google’s consumer messaging and conferencing app associated with the public Gmail service. Google introduced Hangouts in 2010. It introduced Meet in 2017, as an included application for G Suite subscribers.
 
Meet is aimed at business users with support for larger conferences, room system hardware, and other business-oriented features. Google even began inserting Meet links in G Suite calendar appointments by default — a setting that only administrators can change.
 
Meet is not as well-known as some of the other conferencing solutions. I’ve even come across G Suite subscribers who were totally unaware of Meet. But that will likely change with these recent enhancements. A few weeks ago, Google made Meet more visible by placing Start and Join options for Meet on the left side of the Gmail display. Last week, Google introduced several new features in Meet, including: a new tile view, better support for high-quality content share, improved noise suppression, and a low-light mode on the mobile app.
 
Meet is standard in all G Suite subscriptions, including government and education. In response to the pandemic, Google temporarily extended the advanced features from its enterprise offer to all G Suite subscribers. This expands meeting capacity to 250 participants, supports livestreaming for up to 100,000 viewers, and enables session recording along with integration with Google Drive (capacity increases make sense, but recording doesn’t seem like an advanced feature to me).
 
Today, Google announced that Meet is now available as a free service to anyone. It is offering a new Meet plan that only requires a (free) Gmail account. This plan supports up to 100 participants in meetings for as long as 60 minutes.
 
Options for free videoconferencing are rapidly expanding for both businesses and consumers. I believe Zoom was the first to introduce a business freemium plan, but free services are also available from 8x8, Cisco, Microsoft, Sangoma, and Vonage.
 
Video services are also popular for consumers; options include Facebook Messenger — last week expanded to support rooms with up to 50 meeting participants — Google Duo and Hangouts, Houseparty, Microsoft Skype, and WhatsApp.
 
Meet is reasonably robust. It offers live captioning at all levels and, of course, tightly integrates into Gmail and Calendar. It is WebRTC-friendly and native to a browser. However, it does not support dynamic backgrounds, and has limited options on room hardware. Recording is an advanced or premium feature, though that’s currently enabled for all users.
 
Is Free Meet a Good Thing?
Most enterprise communications providers now offer a video component. Just recently, we have seen new video services from Avaya, Fuze, Mitel, RingCentral, Sangoma, and Vonage. I have always figured the more video (usage and providers) the better. Google making Meet more capable and visible makes perfect sense as conferencing services have become so critical to so many organizations. I’m a proponent of visual communications, so this is a victory in many ways.
 
However, I fear that these changes are also part of a larger chain reaction to conferencing’s rapid rise in popularity. Things change when a service becomes massively applicable. To clarify my point with history, let’s go back to when email became mainstream. Email started with universities and research sites on the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET, which was the first TCP/IP network. Unix, an early operating system, had a built-in email service. Then came enterprise computing systems from companies such as IBM, DEC, and Wang. I can vividly recall my IBM PROFs account.
 
As the world began to connect to the Internet, email was one of the early killer apps. Each of the LAN solutions providers (such as Novell, LANtastic, and Banyan) offered an email service. Before Exchange and Outlook, Microsoft had Microsoft Mail. There were also specialized solutions such as Lotus Notes, cc:Mail, and Zimbra. Email could also be obtained from early Internet services such as AOL, Yahoo, and Hotmail. Organizations had a lot of choices regarding email, and all these vendors devised innovative ways to make communications better.
 
Once it became clear that email was a necessary service that most people and companies would require, the major vendors made it a central part of their value. Microsoft included Exchange and Outlook in its enterprise licensing programs. Today, most businesses get their email from Microsoft and/or Google (Gmail and G Suite Gmail), and the remaining options comprise that small slice of “Other.” Email has largely become a commodity, and organizations are generally unwilling to pay for a service that they already obtain in a bundle.
 
It Takes a Team
The coronavirus accelerated things, and the meeting genie isn’t going back in the bottle. Conferencing has become a mass-appeal service for businesses. Both Microsoft and Google now include it in their subscriptions, and Google even offers it free. But, to get the service from Microsoft, organizations must adopt Teams. It’s a great integration for Teams users, but it's not the easiest approach to hosting a meeting for non-users. Since so many Office 365 subscribers have yet to embrace Teams, a significant market for other conferencing providers persists.
 
If Microsoft makes its meeting services directly accessible to Office 365 subscribers from Outlook, without Teams, the conferencing industry will implode just as the email industry did in the ‘90s. Microsoft is currently using meetings to drive the adoption of Teams. With meetings now so important to so many organizations, unbundling it may be more strategic. I can foresee a conferencing duopoly on the horizon with core conferencing services (along with email) at the core of business subscriptions from Microsoft and Google. The impact to the existing, vibrant industry would be significant. There would be winners, survivors, and a lot of failures as the market for third-party providers shrinks.
 
I have not heard that Microsoft is considering this move, but it is well positioned with meetings. In addition to its Office 365 subscriber base, it has a few features that Google doesn’t have, a wider selection of room systems, and room system compatibility with Cisco and Zoom.
 
Of course, video is about to explode in more ways than meetings. For example, I expect to see rapid advancements in telemedicine. New apps like TikTok and Houseparty are making video more engaging. We have now discovered video weddings and funerals. Also, each of the FAANG companies are video-savvy. For example, Netflix is already deploying the new AV1 codec, which is optimized for streaming (and conferencing).
 
It’s been great to see how meetings solutions have done so well during the pandemic. The industry has really delivered during these difficult times. But, it may be one of those careful-what you-wish-for situations.
 
Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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