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.
Keller, another former Microsoft employee now on faculty with the master's in digital media program at the University of Washington, said Hangouts fits perfectly into an academic environment, where open collaboration and acceptance of change are the norm. In other organizations, there will likely be security concerns and reservations about doing business over a free public service. "I'm not saying this is for everyone," he said. "I don't think that's the case."
Harold Carey Jr., an online learning and social media consultant, thinks Hangouts is likely to catch on among small businesses as an alternative to online meeting tools like GoToMeeting for those who don't want to pay the monthly subscription fee. Hangouts would be good for "contacting all your salespeople and getting them together to announce new products," he said. "It probably has 90% of the features of a WebEx or GoToMeeting."
Overall, Carey said, "it works pretty great, but sometimes if there are a lot of people in there, there are problems."
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Eventually, as Google+ develops into an enterprise social networking extension of Google Apps, business users may be able to count on a richer set of features for scheduling and conducting online meetings, along with greater assurances of security and reliability. When that happens, businesses will probably have to pay for services that go beyond the free consumer level. But it's early, yet. So far, the greatest business success stories related to Hangouts have been about seeking publicity, rather than conducting private meetings.
Consider the story of musician Daria Musk, whose practice of conducting concerts over Google+ Hangouts helped win her a worldwide audience. Her experience helped lead to the creation of the Hangouts on Air version.
"The main first recipients of business benefits from Hangouts are flourishing artists," said Ron Jackson, a broadcast and online video consultant. Besides Daria Musk, he points to Cliff Roth, an artist who has built a businesses around doing "Speedpaints" of people he connects with through Hangouts. Portrait subjects who like the sketch can buy a more finished version from him.
At the same time, Jackson is conscious of having proclaimed an imminent revolution in Internet video communications for business several times before. "Please hear me when say I think it is the future--but it is slightly in the future. I've always wanted to say it is now, now, now, and I've been burned every time I've said it," he said.
The bleeding-edge state of the technology was on display when Jackson participated in a Hangout hosted by "Good Morning America" immediately following a broadcast earlier this month that featured an interview with Vic Gundotra, the senior VP of engineering for Google+. An initial attempt to capture the videofeed and send it to the Times Square Jumbotron failed due to technical difficulties, so the online meeting didn't happen until the reporters retreated to their studio and started over.
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"They made a classic mistake--they went live before they were ready for it," Jackson said. The TV crew probably got a little too ambitious, piling complications on top of beta-quality technology. In his own tests, Hangouts is more likely to hang up when some of the participants are accessing the session from mobile devices, or when the Hangouts with Extras features are included.
So would Jackson do a business meeting on Hangouts? "Under carefully controlled conditions, yes," he said. "Most, if not all, of the participants would have to be on Ethernet--I would not trust any Wi-Fi connection--and I'd want to control the time of day that those meetings came about, trying to gauge the network traffic."
Ideally, those participating in the meeting would also be tech-savvy friends, willing to try something new in a spirit of experimentation--with an alternative such as a simple phone conference ready as a backup. For communications with a client whom you wouldn't want to be embarrassed in front of, he said, "I would still advise extreme caution, knowing that an unacceptable level of failure is possible. I say that with a heavy heart, but with great hope--I think we're nearly there."
The Enterprise Connect conference program covers the full range of platforms, services, and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. It happens March 25-29 in Orlando, Fla. Find out more.