Amid the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders greatly increasing the demand for video calls, Google is slowly trying to whip together a viable video call platform after ignoring the market for years. Last week, it added a free tier to its latest video chat service, Google Meet, which was previously G Suite exclusive. The free tier opened up Google Meet to anyone with a Google account, and now you’ll be constantly reminded of the service thanks to a new Gmail integration.
Users are reporting that a Google Meet section has popped up in the sidebar of Gmail, below the mailbox sections and labels. This is a feature that previously only existed in G Suite, but with Google Meet’s jump to consumers, the sidebar feature is making the jump, too. There are only two options: “Start a meeting” and “Join a meeting,” which just pops up a box that requires a meeting code. The Google Meet section lives in the same panel as Google Hangouts—Google’s longest-running instant messaging service—which is pinned to the bottom of the sidebar. While you can hide the Hangouts panel in the Gmail options, it doesn’t look like you can turn off the Meet section. At least, that’s how my account works right now. This is all on a rollout, so some people will get it earlier than others, and a full release could take weeks.
Google’s history with video chat goes hand-in-hand with its incredibly messy and unfocused history with instant messaging apps. Google neglected both markets for years by thinly spreading its development efforts across several competing Google products, and when the pandemic hit, Google didn’t have a viable competitor to Zoom, which rode a surging wave of demand to the top of the market. Google Meet existed, but it was exclusively a G Suite product, available only to paying enterprise customers of Google. Zoom was free, simple, and “just worked,” so it gained a ton of market share. Google eventually opened up Meet to the general public, but it only started to do so last week, and by then everyone that needed a video service had already picked Zoom. Google, Skype, and Facebook now all find themselves “chasing Zoom.”
Currently, Google has three competing video chat services. There’s Google Hangouts, the company’s oldest and most comprehensive chat platform from 2013, which has a significant video chat feature. There’s also Google Duo, a consumer-focused video call service that has a particular focus on (and actual popularity in) India. Google Meet has arisen as this year’s favored video service inside of Google, though. It originally launched in 2017 as a side companion app to Google Chat, Google’s upstart Slack clone. (The two products actually started off life branded as “Hangouts Meet” and “Hangouts Chat,” but that was incredibly confusing since they had no relation to 2013’s “Google Hangouts,” and they were recently renamed, so let’s just forget it ever happened.) Google Chat originally hogged the spotlight, but with the increased need for video calls, Google Meet has found a new purpose in life.
Integrating the service into Gmail is an aggressive move and something we haven’t seen the company do since the Google+ days. Reportedly, a lot more integrations are coming in the future—the G Suite team apparently wants to make some kind of “new unified communications app” that merges features from Gmail, Drive, Google Chat, and Google Meet.
Listing image by Google