Google+’s Hangouts has just gone a whole lot more awesome. The group video chat feature of Google’s social network, one which rival Facebook has no answer to yet, had been pimped out with numerous features that enhance collaboration.
Now it’s been updated again with one extra feature: You can make phone calls from within the Hangouts interface to any number in the U.S. and Canada, for free. Once the connection is established, the call recipient can join the conversation with everyone else in the hangout session.
Google employee Jarkko Oikarinen, also known for inventing the Internet Relay Chat (IRC), listed the steps to initiate a phone call from Hangouts:
1. Click Invite at the top of the hangouts with extras window
2. Click the Phone tab on the left of the window, and enter the phone number you wish to call.
3. Click Call now.
This may seem to be a minor feature addition for Google+, but looking at a bigger picture, Google+ is positioning itself not only as a competitor to Facebook, but also to Skype, a popular video chat service that had recently been acquired by Microsoft.
Google first challenged Skype with its Google Voice service by offering free calls to any number in the U.S., along with other nifty features such as personalized call forwarding and voicemail transcript.
On Skype, group video calls are categorized as a premium feature. Users have to pay a fee of $4.49 to $8.99 per month, depending on their subscription length, in order to gain access to it. Call conferencing, on the other hand, is free–but only if everyone participating in the call is on Skype. Users can invite participants without Skype too, but the call will be charged.
Google is offering both services (video chat and call conferencing) in one package that’s going for an irresistible price of free. Although Facebook has partnered with Skype to bring video chat to its own social network, it’s not possible yet to video chat with more than one participant, let alone dial out to an actual phone for voice conferencing.
The largest challenge Google has now is to get more users on its social network and have them discover its under-hyped features.