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Google fights back against Zoom with a free version of Meet

Google Meet is now free to all. But the video conferencing service still lacks essential features for business users.

Google has done what its competitors did long ago: make a version of its enterprise video conferencing app free to all.

The move could help Google catch up to rival Zoom among consumers. But the search giant's video product, Google Meet, still lacks essential features for business users, analysts said.

Those features include native virtual backgrounds, polls and breakout rooms. Google also doesn't have as many hardware partners as its competitors and displays fewer people on screen than Zoom (16 participants vs. 49 participants).

"By no means do I consider Google out of this race," said Craig Durr, senior analyst at Wainhouse Research. "But I do think they were caught flat on their heels."

In March, Google gave all G Suite customers free access to the most advanced version of Meet. But it did not make Meet free for everyone until this month. Google also waited until May to launch a free bundle of G Suite apps for businesses.

In contrast, Microsoft, Zoom and Cisco expanded their already free video offerings as soon as the coronavirus pandemic went global. Microsoft also released a pared-down version of Office 365 for free at the same time.

Google's decision to hold off on nixing the paywall for Meet may have cost them users.

Meet hosts 100 million participants daily, Google said. That's half as many as Microsoft Teams, which hosts up to 200 million, and one-third of Zoom's 300 million. A participant is someone who joins a meeting. Therefore, vendors count a person who attends multiple sessions in a day as an equal number of participants.

In the past, Google has adapted popular consumer products for the enterprise market. In making Meet available to consumers, Google is taking the opposite approach, said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, analyst at S&P Global's 451 Research.

Google will soon prompt its 1.5 billion Gmail users to make video calls through Meet, thereby increasing the likelihood that more people will use the app. But Google will need to enhance the product further to get more businesses on board.

Google has lacked a coherent strategy for penetrating the enterprise communications market for some time, analysts said.

Google remained focused on email as competitors made team-based messaging and video apps a priority. As upstarts Zoom and Slack gained market share, incumbents Microsoft and Cisco responded more quickly than Google to the threat.

"I think Google missed a lot of opportunities," said Irwin Lazar, analyst at Nemertes Research. "They are still too wedded to email."

But there are signs Google is finally honing its focus. The company is planning to consolidate communications apps later this year, reducing overlap in its portfolio.

Google is phasing out Hangouts, a chat and video calling app embedded in Gmail, in favor of the newer Hangouts Chat and Meet. The change will affect businesses first and consumers later.

Google is also reportedly developing a mobile client that would contain all the most essential G Suite apps in one product. The client would include Gmail, Drive, Hangouts Chat and Meet, according to The Information.

Nevertheless, Google has yet to create a unified desktop or web application that combines calling, messaging, video conferencing and file sharing. That puts the company at a disadvantage against Microsoft, which has merged those features in its Teams app.

For Google, video conferencing is just one piece of the puzzle. The company's primary goal is to grow G Suite at the expense of Microsoft's Office 365. Google trails Microsoft in that market.

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