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Google goes Meet free to challenge Zoom

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Google has stepped up its video conferencing offerings, making its premium service - Meet - free and available for everyone to use.

Meet is a video conferencing app which has to date only been offered via G Suite, Google's portfolio of collaboration and productivity apps for business. Meet is marketed as an enterprise-friendly version of its classic Hangouts video-calling app.

As the coronavirus pandemic has forced many millions of people worldwide to work and socialise remotely under lockdown conditions, people are relying heavily on video-conferencing services to work and live. Freemium video-conferencing service Zoom has been catapulted to vast popularity (attracting attendant scrutiny) with 300 million daily active users. Google Meet, meanwhile, has 100 million and Microsoft Teams has 44 million.

According to Google, Meet has seen peak daily usage grow thirtyfold since January and is currently acquiring three million new users per day.

In a bid to win over users of rival platforms, Google has announced that it will be making Meet available free to everyone with a Google account. Previously, anyone could join a Meet call, although only paying G Suite users could start calls.

“We’ve invested years in making Meet a secure and reliable video-conferencing solution that’s trusted by schools, governments and enterprises around the world and in recent months we’ve accelerated the release of top-requested features to make it even more helpful,” wrote Javier Soltero, G Suite manager, referring to features such as a tiled layout and noise cancellation.

“Starting in early May, anyone with an email address can sign up for Meet and enjoy many of the same features available to our business and education users, such as simple scheduling and screen sharing, real-time captions, and layouts that adapt to your preference, including an expanded tiled view.”

Non-paying users will be able to host meetings for up to 100 people. However, a 60-minute time limit will be introduced in October (Zoom has an official time limit of 40 minutes for free accounts, although many users find workarounds).

Users will be asked to register their interest and will receive notifications when the free service is available to them.

Although Google did not explicitly mention Zoom in its blog post announcing the move, it is likely to be hoping to capitalise on the recent criticisms of Zoom for its questionable privacy and security practices. Zoom has been criticised for a smorgasbord of practices and flaws, such as data-sharing with Facebook, inadvertently leaking personal information and a vulnerability which could force Mac users to join Zoom meetings. The FBI has also issued a warning about 'Zoombombing': unwelcome intrusions into video conferences, often accompanied with hate speech or pornography.

These issues have resulted in some companies, educational institutions and government agencies banning Zoom, although the company has already pledged to resolve many of the issues as quickly as possible.

In the G Suite blog post, Soltero outlined security controls in Meet, such as allowing hosts to remove participants and control entry; no anonymous attendees; encryption in transit, and no required plug-ins.

Google will also be launching 'G Suite Essentials' – also free until October – which has advanced Meet features, in the hope that some G Suite Essentials users will choose to upgrade to a full G Suite account following their trial. Existing G Suite customers will receive extra perks, including livestreaming to up to 100,000 customers.

The world’s largest digital companies are racing to offer the most attractive tools to people trapped in lockdown, particularly video-conferencing services.

Last week, Facebook announced a new tool called Messenger Rooms, which can be launched from the Facebook or Messenger app (as well as from Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Portal eventually).

Messenger Rooms allows video calls with up to 50 participants, virtual backgrounds and control over who joins calls. Messenger Rooms is scheduled for launch some time within the next few weeks. Meanwhile, in China, Alibaba has launched Alibaba Cloud Conference, which will compete in the country with Tencent Meeting and Zoom.

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