Earlier this week the GMail weblog announced GMail voice and video chat; basically they are designed to add voice and video modes to an email thread; from the GMail blog post:
… today we’re launching voice and video chat — right inside Gmail. We’ve tried to make this an easy-to-use, seamless experience, with high-quality audio and video — all for free. All you have to do is download and install the voice and video plugin and we take care of the rest. And in the spirit of open communications, we designed this feature using Internet standards such as XMPP, RTP, and H.264, which means that third-party applications and networks can choose to interoperate with Gmail voice and video chat.
This afternoon I had an opportunity to try it out with Hudson Barton; publisher of the Borderless Communicator weblog and tracker of “Real Skype Users”. We had a 20 minute conversation using my Logitech QuickCam Pro for Notebooks on a Wiindows laptop and the webcam on Hudson’s MacBook. There are two viewing sizes available: a 225 x 140 window inside the GMail tab of a Firefox (or other browser) session and an optional pop-up window that goes to 430 x 270. We were only able to determine that it provides a “letterbox” 1.6 width-to-height ratio (as opposed to the 1.33 ratio of “standard” video), but not the frame size or frame rate actually being transmitted over the Internet. As for CPU usage, the “googletalkplugi.exe” was using between 10% and 17% of my CPU. With no accessible statistics along the line of Skype’s option to display call statistics, it was not possible to drill down further. Both audio and video quality were clear and crisp – quite acceptable for a basic one-to-one conversation. Echo cancellation was apparent; Hudson was using the native speakers and mic of his MacBook with no perceivable echo..
It’s definitely not up to the feature set of Skype but here’s where it fits in:
- GMail certainly has a large user base, same order of magnitude as Skype.
- It’s easy to forward your standard POP/IMAP email account to GMail; I use this feature both for the resulting search capability and the available access to GMail on multiple devices, including smartphones.
- It provides real time conversation mode options for GMail threads being read on a PC. While reading an email and running the cursor over the sender’s name, an option pops up to respond to the email message by email, Chat or Voice/Video based on the sender information as shown in the graphic above.
I would classify GMail Voice and Video Chat as a very mild competitor to Skype, suitable for basic “free” voice and video as a conversation enhancer. There’s no way to establish or check audio and video settings; there’s no access to the PSTN. While the video is quite good, it certainly does not meet Skype’s High Quality Video standards. It’s a perfect example of embedding voice and video into an application as a feature but it’s not a standalone real time conversation software application. When I consider the rejuvenation of Global IP Solutions and look at its customer base, I can foresee many other forthcoming instances of embedded voice and video as a feature within an application.
Note: as for the installation issues that Aliza encountered, I simply went to the URL suggested in the GMail weblog post and installed the plug-in (with the browser open). But then you have to restart your browser (in my case Firefox); initially the “video availability indicators” (as represented in the graphic above) were not present but I had to head out at that point. When I came back to my PC four hours later, they had appeared. Chat pixel dust from the (Google) cloud in the interim is my only explanation. At the time of writing this post, its availability should have spread to many GMail accounts by the usual Google osmosis process.
Full disclosure; the author has had previous first hand experience with what was thought to be an application but turned out to be a feature. Quarterdeck’s mid-90’s effort at building a web browser as an application was thwarted when Microsoft decided to make its web browser (aka MS Internet Explorer) a feature within the Windows operating system.