A US elementary school teacher uses Google Meet from her home in Brookline, MA on March 27, 2020. Picture: THE BOSTON GLOBE VIA GETTY IMAGES/DAVID L RYAN
A US elementary school teacher uses Google Meet from her home in Brookline, MA on March 27, 2020. Picture: THE BOSTON GLOBE VIA GETTY IMAGES/DAVID L RYAN

Oakland — Alphabet’s Google said on Wednesday that any user will soon be able to host free video conferences on Meet, turning its previously business-only tool into a bigger rival to Zoom and others battling for users during the coronavirus pandemic.

Zoom Video Communications, Microsoft’s Skype and Facebook’s Messenger introduced features this month to attract users as people barred from going out to socialise look for free options to connect with friends and family by online video.

But Meet, which has 100-million daily users, required a Google business or education account to set up calls. While Google has long offered free versions of business tools, including Gmail and Google Docs, there was no equivalent for Meet, a newer service launched three years ago.

The company will gradually open Meet in the coming weeks, and users can sign up to know when their account gains access.

Google has provided free video conferencing for nearly 12 years through its Hangouts service, but it features outdated security and technology and its popularity has waned. The company also maintains Duo, a video calling app accessible only on smartphones.

Smita Hashim, a director of product management at Google, said in an interview that the company recommends consumers use Meet rather than Hangouts.

“As Covid-19 has impacted everyone’s lives, we felt there was a reason to bring something built for businesses first to everyone,” she said. “It’s a more secure, reliable, modern product.”

Meet calls pass through Google’s servers, enabling it to provide automatic captioning, troubleshoot issues and comply with legal orders to share users’ data. But consumers’ calls will not be stored. Businesses and schools will have exclusive access to recording meetings and other options.

Google generates revenue from many of its free services by placing ads within them or collecting data on users’ behaviour to personalise ads. This will not be true for Meet, Hashim said.

Google’s cloud services unit, which developed Meet, does not use customer data for advertising and that will apply to free users, too, she said.

Alphabet announced on Tuesday that first-quarter revenue was better than investors had expected given the virus-hammered economy, and executives said that boosting free services at this time would pay off in the longer term by generating user loyalty.

But Meet will cut free calls after an hour starting in October, compared with no time limit on Messenger and Skype, and a 40-minute restriction on consumer Zoom accounts. Free Meet calls also will be limited to no more than a single host and 100 participants — the same as Zoom’s free version but more than the 50 on Messenger and Skype.

Google aims to deter bad behaviour by requiring all participants of the consumer version of Meet to sign in with a Google account. Hashim said that participants’ names and profile pictures will be visible on calls, but their e-mail addressees will not be shared. 


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