A couple of weeks back I wrote about Google+ and specifically about Google Circles and concluded that it is a genuinely efficient social networking tool that will eventually suit business (and especially business to business) use better than Facebook. But Google also launched two other services at the same time including Google Hangouts and Google Sparks. Google Hangouts is the slightly “West Coast” name that Google gives to their instant group video chat tools. If you are familiar with Skype, you will understand the concept. If you are not, imagine the possibilities of inviting up to ten of your business acquaintances together for a chat using an easy to use videophone and you will get the idea. In addition, Google Hangouts also provides Web Conferencing style facilities too, for example, the ability to share PowerPoint presentations and to work on written documents in collaboration with colleagues.
Starting a Hangout is as simple as choosing a contact from of your Google Circles, clicking on a (slightly hidden) off-yellow Video Camera icon and sending invites. However, the first time it is used, you will be required to down load an App, which takes a few minutes, but is nothing too onerous. Full Web Conferencing style features, known as Extras, can be added by separate request for each individual Hangout you set up. By definition, all users (currently) need to be on Google+, and this is somewhat of a drawback if your potential partners in business collaboration do not use Google+, but do not be surprised if Google find a way of relaxing this requirement as a way of extending the reach of Google+.
But in the UK at least, only kids “hangout”. Surely business owners have more serious matters to attend to? Surely, business owners need to do serious things like; create leads through networking, compare and contrast ideas, keep up to date with industry trends and cut deals – not to mention participate in the swapping of office gossip! Actually, I suppose that is Hanging out! Not so long ago, and more often than not, this would have occurred over a business lunch with clients or with colleagues on “an impromptu outing” down the pub. Sadly, and for a number of converging reasons* this is a dying art and it is indeed rare to see a colleague or client even slightly merry after a lunchtime tipple. Instead, thanks to the miracle technology of video and web conferencing, there is no need to leave your desk in order to collaborate with your colleagues from half-way round the world. Need to create genuine collaborative “thought leading” articles and post them directly to your Google+ site for near instant cataloguing and indexing by Google? Then Google Hangouts take some beating.
In fact, video conferencing has been around since the early days of ISDN, but it has never really caught on in the way that was expected (perhaps because people preferred impromptu outings to the pub?) Skype has since made tremendous strides in persuading millions of people to have go – and Skype really does work well, especially a one-to-one basis with a good Broadband connection at each end. Other firms have developed very sophisticated web conferencing and web training tools. For example, check out Cisco’s excellent “GoToMeeting”. But I think that Google Hangouts, (especially with a Smartphone version), will be the first network to crack the wholly more challenging market for impromptu business group video collaboration. And with the addition of Extras, Google will be able to supply very reasonable Web Conferencing tools too.
Sure Facebook has a video chat capability that is ideal for hanging out with your mates and I can see small business owners introducing more video chat as a one-to-one sales tool, allowing the millions of Facebook subscribers to video chat with live representatives before making a purchase. But would you trust Facebook to host your confidential product development meeting? Yet, Hangouts, even with its handicapped name, is still attractive to the business community. Why? Because it is simple, it works, it’s integrated with other Google Tools, it will work on Android mobile phones, it is free (for up to 10 participants) – and it has Google’s business pedigree.
The Holy Grail for video chat would be to be able to hold your Annual Sales or Annual General Meeting with several hundred individuals on a secure but live link, with full web conferencing features. While I do not think that Google Hangouts is the right tool for this, I do think that Google Circles will encourage far greater use of business video chat and web conferencing- especially for the small business with national or international reach. If only you could also get served a decent pint at the same time – then they would be on to a winner!
*The general tightening of the economy and fear of redundancy, obviously. But perhaps the introduction of Social Networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook together with easy Google Search reduced the need for business colleagues to socialise during and after office hours in order to keep up with developments.