Designed to allow spontaneous face-to-face online gatherings of friends, Hangouts is one of the unique social features that created the most excitement about Google+ when it was introduced this summer. Hangouts could also grow into a powerful business tool. Any Google+ user can start a Hangout, which is a videochat that can include up to 10 users and go on for as long as you like, for free. On Skype, group video calls are only available to paying customers.
On the other hand, Hangouts exist as part of a beta service, they sometimes crash, and the extensions that add business features like document and application sharing are at an even earlier stage of beta testing. When Google+ went from invitation-only test to open beta in September, Google announced a version called Hangouts on Air that makes it possible for Hangout participants to share a video feed with a larger audience of passive watchers and listeners. However, that product has only been made available to a very select group of Google+ users. Anyone else who wants to stream or record a Hangouts session must resort to workarounds, like making one user account on the videocall a dummy account that sends its feed to a video-capture device or service.
Enthusiasts see Hangouts as a means to connect with customers or conduct focus groups or to revolutionize the very nature of work. Dell CEO Michael Dell has been hosting Hangouts as a way of getting direct customer feedback and even dropped in on a marathon event, the Longest Hangout, organized by Google+ fans, that ultimately lasted 77 days.
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Jeris JC Miller, who served as communications director for the recent TEDxRanier event at the University of Washington, said the conference organizers often found it convenient to do their planning meetings as Hangouts. "We're all located in various parts of the city, and with this we can just jump into the meetings we need ... to move the event forward," she said.
Miller also recorded a series of preconference interviews with the speakers and posted them to YouTube as a promotional tool. One that she was particularly proud of featured the founders of Jolkona Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to maximizing the impact of small charitable donations, in which co-founder Adnan Mahmud was able to access the session from Beijing. She also posted excerpts from my interview with her and her friends Paolo Tosolini and Drew Keller.
Tosolini is an enterprise social media and online video consultant, someone I connected with on Google+ after seeing his posts about experimenting with the business applications of Hangouts. A former new media business manager at Microsoft, he was actually sitting in an office on the Microsoft campus, where he was visiting, when he got on our videocall about the wonders of Google's video service. Tosolini is impressed by the performance and scalability of the service and said its 10-participant limit is adequate for most business purposes. "When you get to 10 people, that already starts to be a lot of people" to have on a videocall, he said.
Tosolini has also been experimenting with various hacks to extend Hangouts--for example, by adding application sharing before Google revealed that as an official part of the roadmap for the product. Now he recommends using the Hangouts with Extras version of the service, which adds the extra goodies.