Google's Gmail Gets Free Video Chat

The plug-in requires an Intel-based computer running Mac OS X or a computer running Windows XP or Vista, a Webcam, and/or a microphone.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

November 10, 2008

3 Min Read

Google Video Chat (click for larger image)

With the economic downturn forcing companies to trim travel spending, Google intends to offer the next best thing to relaxing plane flights, sumptuous airline meals, and TSA security massages: free video and voice chat for users of Gmail.

On Tuesday, Google plans to launch a Web browser plug-in that will allow Gmail users to conduct video and voice chat sessions with other suitably equipped members of the Gmail tribe.

The plug-in requires an Intel-based computer running Mac OS X or a computer running Windows XP or Vista, a Webcam, and/or a microphone. It works with browsers that support the current version of Gmail: Chrome, Firefox 2.0+, Internet Explorer 7.0, and Safari 3.0. There are no specific plans for a Linux-based plug-in at the moment.

To install the plug-in, click on the "Options" menu in Gmail's left-hand navigation bar chat pane. There you'll find an "Add voice/video chat" menu option that will initiate a one-time installation download, assuming the service has been activated on your account. Once the download is complete, reload the Gmail page and you should see that the "Options" link has changed to become a "Video & more" link.

There's also an installation link at

Google says that Gmail is the first Webmail service to include video chat. The company says that it will be rolling out the new video chat feature to Gmail users Tuesday afternoon, over a period of several hours.

"We think this pretty significant," said Rajen Sheth, senior product manager for Google's enterprise group. "It's something that we see bringing people closer together, especially in a business context."

Sheth said that Google has been using Gmail video chat across its more than 60 offices around the globe. "It actually is something that can help people, especially, in tough times, to save money," he said. "It makes it so you can do face-to-face meetings without travel."

For small companies, Gmail video chat, like Skype, could help save money on international phone calls, too.

The H.264 SVC video chat, which runs in a 300-by-200 window, uses about 300 Kbps in both directions, said Sheth. That means Google should be able to develop a mobile version of video chat for Android phones and, perhaps, the iPhone 3G. Whether it would choose to do so and undermine the voice revenue stream of its mobile network operator partners, Sheth wouldn't say.

Google has been adding a significant number of new features to Gmail recently. The most recent one, SMS messaging from Gmail chat, was put on hold shortly after the company announced it, because of what Google said was a programming problem. Sheth said Google plans to reintroduce that feature when it's ready.

Here is a short video that explains the application:

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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