Photo: Matt Rosoff
Last week, after the blunders with Wave and Buzz, Google unveiled Google+, their most recent foray into the unchartered waters of social. This time around, they’re hoping for better traction than with the two aforementioned services. Judging by the verdicts from all the various technology pundits across the world that have taken the new service for a test drive, Google+, merely a week after its announcement, is arguably the most successful and promising Google social product to date (with the exception for Gmail, of course).With Google+, the search behemoth from Mountain View is trying to tackle one of the most fundamental problems in the sphere of social today, namely finding a solution for simple and intuitive segmentation of your social graph. The solution is called Circles, and by comparison to Lists and Groups on Facebook, it’s far superior in my opinion.
However, it’s not Circles that makes you raise your eyebrows in awe. That feature is called Hangouts, and it has likely made some of the top brass at Skype tremble in fear. Here are four reasons why I believe that Hangouts is likely to eat a big chunk of Skype’s video calling minutes.
1. Hangouts are asynchronous and serendipitous. As opposed to a video call on Skype (or now Facebook, for that matter), anyone in a Google+ Hangout session is free to invite people from their Circles to the chat. This makes Hangouts a truly social experience, where people that aren’t previously acquainted with each other can interact.
Video has for the most part been considered a very intimate form of online communication, something that’s been conducted solely between people we are close to. A service that has proven the opposite and strongly argues against that notion is Chatroulette. The concept as such was well-received and quickly gained traction, but later stagnated due to the high risk of being exposed to an anonymous user’s genitals, rather than a friendly face. And that was the problem: Anonymity, and the subsequent lack of accountability. Google Hangouts is Chatroulette done right.
2. Hangouts is free. In Hangouts, Google+ users can have multi-way video chats with up to 10 people. The cost? Not a single dime. Also, in addition to multi-way support, you have the aspect of a generally much richer experience with the integration of YouTube, as well as the fact that you don’t need to download a plug-in or let alone a client to make it work.
On Skype, however, multi-way video conferencing is a premium feature and one of their biggest bets when it comes to monetizing their enormous user-base of 600 million registered accounts, out of which only 6% have made a credit deposit. Sure, the charge of $4.49 to $8.99 per month might not be a lot of money, but it’s a whole lot more than zero. When Google+ opens to everyone, starts gaining tractions amongst average users and people start building their social graphs, I will be surprised if Skype’s monthly average of 300 million minutes of video calls starts to plummet.
3. Hangouts mimic real-life social interactions. Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about what is referred to as the “Alive Web”. Om Malik best described it as a web that is about social interactions based on our offline behaviour of engagement with our friends. Essentially, the things in our day-to-day life, such as being at a party and taking turns picking the music.
A service that epitomizes just that is Turntable.fm, which has seen very impressive initial user uptake and has virtually every tech-savant singing its praise. With the integration of YouTube in Hangouts, Google+ facilitates the exact same thing. Up to 10 people can take turns picking videos, simultaneously view them as they play in each participants’ browser and talk and laugh together while being able to actually see each other. Just like Turntable.fm, the Hangouts feature effectively mimics a real-life social conversation about a social object.
4. Google will branch out Hangouts. In classic Google manner (and similar to what arch-nemesis Apple has said about FaceTime) a Google engineer, Justin Uberti, recently made it known on his personal blog that the company intends to publish the specifications necessary for third-party applications to interoperate with Hangouts. This is the direct opposite of Skype’s intentions, which they’ve proved by most recently forcing Fring, a peer-to-peer mobile service, to remove Skype video call support from their mobile app offerings.
All these four factors combined make up an enormously strong value proposition for Google. The heat in the video calling space is most certainly on and you can be sure that any fear that Skype executives may have regarding Hangouts, and any puckered brows that occur as a result, is more than adequately justified.
Andreas is the CEO of Rebtel, the world’s second largest mobile VoIP company. Prior to Rebtel, the Goldman Sachs alum was COO of Taptu, a leading UK-based mobile search engine, and TradeDoubler, Europe’s leading performance based marketing company.