So far, the most useful feature in Google+ is Hangouts, browser-based video chat with up to 10 people.It works right in the browser (although you might have to download a plug-in first), there’s almost no latency, it’s got a great interface, and it’s easy to use.
Plus, it’s one thing that Facebook doesn’t have. Yet.
Tomorrow at 10 am PT, Facebook is holding an event at its Palo Alto headquarters to announce “something awesome” (in the words of Mark Zuckerberg) and Mike Arrington at TechCrunch hears it’s going to be Skype integration into Facebook.
This could be a great addition for Facebook users, and could help Skype (and its in-process buyer Microsoft) reach a much bigger audience than the current 100 million or so who use the service.
But Facebook and Skype will have a hard time matching Hangouts.
Skype is built on peer to peer technology. Each Skype call is routed using directories stored on the PCs of other users, and the calls are connected directly from PC to PC. That works fine when you’re connecting with one or two other people, and is a big reason why Skype was able to offer more reliable voice-over-IP service than competitors five or six years ago, and has been able to scale massively without a lot of expensive infrastructure.
But as you add more people, that peer-to-peer architecture becomes a stumbling block — maintaining connections to 10 people requires a lot more bandwidth in and out of each chatter’s PC — and latency starts to become a problem. That’s why Skype recommends doing video chat with no more than 5 people at a time, even though it technically supports 10.
Google built Hangouts the old-fashioned way — all video streams are routed through Google’s servers, as explained by Hangouts tech lead Justin Uberti on his blog. This also has disadvantages — it’s expensive to build, and if Google’s infrastructure ever goes down, everybody’s out of luck. (Although peer-to-peer isn’t a perfect solution: witness Skype’s cascading failure last December when a bunch of PC-based directories, or “supernodes,” failed all at once.)
But when it comes to running large-scale multipoint chat, it’s really the best way to do it.
It’s also a great example of how Google’s massive infrastructure is a huge advantage in beating back competitors. Although Facebook has about 700 million users and a bunch of smart engineers, it’s still a baby in terms of infrastructure — until this year, it leased its data centre space, and has only just begun building and operating its own data centres. That’s why it has to turn to partners like Skype to provide these kinds of services.
Of course, maybe Facebook and Skype have another trick up their sleeve — like using Microsoft’s massive data centres, which rival Google’s, to route video calls.
Join us tomorrow at 10 am PT (1 pm ET) as we live blog the announcement.