In the new Gmail launched Tuesday by Google, you can check your e-mail -- and then talk to your friends with voice and video chat.
With a Webcam and a small browser plug-in, users can now chat with video and voice inside Gmail or Google Apps. The company noted that users can communicate in real time without switching to another application or creating a different account. It said it was the "first leading Webmail service to include video chat."
Users whose computers have a microphone but not a Webcam can utilize voice only.
Google noted that video chatting is growing in popularity, with many laptops coming with built-in Webcams and with many business looking to reduce travel and IT expenses for workers who interact with remote colleagues. Uses include demonstrating a new product and allowing grandparents to see their newest grandchild.
As with many Google apps, the implementation is straightforward. In a Google chat window, the user clicks on Options in the bottom menu and chooses "add voice/video chat." The application walks users though a one-time installation of a free, 2MB download. Once installed, the Options link in the chat window has become "Video & more."
The user simply needs to open that option and select "start video chat" to begin the video or audio chat. For video, the user can also change the size and position or switch to full screen. For users who don't have a Webcam, Google is offering a selection of devices from Logitech and Buy.com at 30 percent off until the end of this month.
The voice/video chat option is also available to Google Apps customers and can run on both PCs and Macs. The PCs must have Windows XP or later, and the Macs must be Intel-based, with OS X 10.4 or later. Compatible browsers are those that support the latest version of Gmail, including Google Chrome, Firefox 2.0+, Internet Explorer 7.0, and Safari 3.0.
'More Than Just E-Mail'
Google says Gmail "has always been about more than just e-mail." In fact, the company said, Gmail is becoming a "communications hub." Other recent features added to Gmail include a mobile client for Android-based phones, animated emoticons, and a variety of experimental features through Gmail Labs, such as embeddable gadgets.
Michael Gartenberg, vice president for consumer strategy at Jupitermedia, noted that some observers say the time for adding video and voice chat has passed, with these functions commonly available on Skype and other applications.
"But bear in mind," he said, "that Google's approach has always been not necessarily to be the first, but to be the best." He pointed out that, in 1998 when the company started, people asked why a new search engine was needed.