(This April 29 story corrects to Duo available on devices beside smartphones in paragraph 7)
By Paresh Dave
OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - Alphabet Inc’s Google on Wednesday said 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 outbreak.
Zoom Video Communications Inc, Microsoft Corp’s Skype and Facebook Inc’s Messenger introduced features this month to attract users as people barred from going out to socialize seek free options to connect with friends and family by online video.
But Meet, which has 100 million daily users, had 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 has been no equivalent for Meet, a service launched three years ago.
The company gradually will open Meet in the coming weeks, and users can sign up landing.google.com/googlemeet to know when their account gains access.
Zoom shares were down about 7% on Wednesday after Google’s announcement.
Alphabet shares were up 9% and rivals Microsoft and Facebook up about 7%, all buoyed by Alphabet on Tuesday reporting first-quarter revenue that was better than investors had expected given the virus-hammered economy.
Google has provided free video conferencing for nearly 12 years through its Hangouts service, but it features outdated security and technology and its popularity has waned.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 service accessible on smartphones and other devices.
Smita Hashim, a director of product management at Google, said in an interview that the company recommends consumers use Meet over Hangouts.
“As COVID has impacted everyone’s lives, we felt there was a reason to bring something built for businesses first to everyone,” she said, referring to COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. “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’ behavior to personalize ads. That 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.
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 above the 50 on Messenger and Skype.
Google aims to deter bad behavior by requiring all participants of the consumer version of Meet to sign in with a Google account. Participants’ names and profile pictures will be visible on calls, but their email addressees will not be shared, Hashim said.
Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Nick Zieminski