If you find yourself leading a meaningful percentage of your life these days via videoconference rather than in person—and you probably do—you’ve got plenty of options. One of them is Google Meet. It’s a solid contender. But it comes with a built-in stumbling block that, for many people, has made it a nonstarter: It isn’t free. Instead, only paying customers of Google’s G Suite productivity service have been able to host meetings.
Now Google is removing that barrier with a new tier of Meet that’s available to anyone who has a Google account. As with Zoom’s free version, meetings are limited to 100 participants. But Meet’s maximum meeting length for freeloaders will be an hour, vs. 40 minutes for Zoom. And Google won’t begin enforcing that limit until Oct. 1, so people stuck at home during the pandemic don’t have to keep an eye on the clock. (This free version will be rolling out over the coming weeks, the company says.)
Meet may not have entered the cultural zeitgeist like Zoom, but it too has been booming, lately adding 3 million new users a day and reaching 100 million daily users, about a third of Zoom’s total. “”We continue to grow Meet, breaking records and scaling like crazy over the course of the two-month [COVID-19] period,” says Javier Soltero, who joined Google as VP and general manager of G Suite last October and was formerly a Microsoft executive. “But it kept coming back that [Meet] is unique in the G Suite product set in that it’s only available to G Suite customers.” (Other G Suite apps—most famously Gmail—also have free incarnations.)
In ordinary times, Soltero says, Google’s conversations with potential G Suite customers are about the service’s potential as a long-term investment in productivity and collaboration. When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, that turned into an urgent “We have to move to our homes tomorrow, and we need tools that enable us to do that.” Google, which had already been thinking about offering a free version of Meet, sped up its plans. Facebook did something similar with its new Messenger Rooms service, which had also been in the works for later in the year.
Meet’s new positioning as a service with something to offer everyone from gigantic companies to freebie-loving consumers is the latest twist in Google’s ever-evolving approach to video calling. The service was originally part of Google Hangouts, which itself began as part of the ill-fated Google Plus social network. Google eventually nudged Hangouts in a more business-minded direction and then split off its videoconferencing features into a stand-alone app called Hangouts Meet. Just three weeks ago, it removed the “Hangouts” from Meet’s name and has recently been playing catchup with Zoom’s ability to show 49 participants at a time. (Meet can currently show 16, with more to come.)
Meanwhile, Google still offers a Hangouts consumer app that incorporates video-calling features, though Soltero says that it will be de-emphasized in favor of Meet over time. And then there’s Duo, yet another free Google video-calling app that’s standard equipment on Android phones and available for iOS. Soltero says that Duo’s mobile-first nature and emphasis on personal communications over productivity give it a mission distinct from that of Meet: “Duo is for people you text with, and Meet is for people that you email with.”
If all of these strategy shifts and overlapping products make your head spin, you’re not alone. But as long as you can deal with even further revisions, the upshot of this latest news looks good. While Zoom’s sudden popularity revealed a raft of security and privacy issues, Meet has anticipated at least some of the things that could go awry and aimed to avoid them. The free version of Meet will require that all participants have Google accounts, making it at least a little harder for anonymous trolls to perform the equivalent of Zoombombing. Meet invite codes are designed to be difficult to uncover through brute-force guessing, and hosts have a variety of tools for preventing miscreants from getting in and evicting them if they do. The service also works entirely within browsers without requiring a software download, helping to reduce security vulnerabilities.
Zoom has been both praised for being easy to use and criticized for sometimes emphasizing approachability over security. With Meet, Soltero says, security trumped everything else: “We ended up having to make the choice of making things not quite as easy as we would like them to be.”
Google, not surprisingly, isn’t framing its decision to offer a free version of the service as a response to Zoom’s rapid ascent in a product category that Google would presumably like to own for itself. But removing the price tag should help Meet ramp up. And the company is reserving enough features for paying customers—such as unlimited meeting length, higher attendee limits, recording, and dial-in numbers for access via phone call—that the free tier shouldn’t get in the way of Meet being a business. It may even help, if enough organizations that start with the freebie edition decide to pay for more functionality. (Google says it won’t mine the meetings of free users for purposes such as ad targeting.)
As a further inducement to try Meet and its G Suite stablemates, Google is introducing a new basic version of the suite, G Suite Essentials. It includes Google Meet, Docs, Sheets, Slide, and Drive; is designed to be easy to get up and running; and will be free through September. “It gets you on a path to be able to realize the benefits of G Suite at whatever scale you deem appropriate for your business, without having to get right into migrating email and calendar systems and doing more complicated things,” says Soltero.
Meet still has to keep corporate types happy, but now that it’s courting consumers as well, will it add playful special effects such as the virtual backgrounds, already available in Zoom, that let you pretend that you’re dialing in from the beach (or slap yourself on a Fast Company cover)? “Not yet!” says Soltero. “Actually, we’ve been really focused on the core qualities people need.” Those include technologies, such as noise cancellation and a low-light mode, that are designed to address some of the traditional gotchas of virtual meetings. But he quickly adds that a whole lot of other features are in the way, including custom backgrounds: “We’re accelerating the roadmap, just because the moment demands it.”