Google is rolling out video and voice capabilities for the chat function that is embedded in the Gmail interface. It's a bare-bones voice and video-conferencing service, but it's simple to install and use and is a very good addition to Gmail.
It's no Skype, though. Gmail Video and Voice, as it's called, can't connect to the plain phone network, as Skype's paid service can. And there are plenty of other optional features missing, like a voice call recorder.
I found a demo of voice and video quality on the service excellent, although to be fair I was connected from CNET's corporate network to someone at the Google campus. I do expect Gmail Video quality to be a bit more consistent than Skype, since unlike the point-to-point architecture of Skype, Gmail Video traffic all runs through Google servers. I expect that Google has the bandwidth and server capacity needed.
But the service was a resource hog on my 2-year-old computer; it used up all my available CPU resources and made other apps slow to respond. I've had better luck with Skype. Newer computers would probably not have this problem.
Unlike many current video chat products, Gmail Video and Voice uses a proprietary plug-in, not Flash. The small (2MB) download supports Firefox, IE, and Chrome on the PC, and Firefox on the Mac. Support for other browsers and platforms (Linux and mobile) may come later.
Gmail Video and Voice will be made available to all Gmail users starting Tuesday at noon PST. Global rollout should be complete by the end of the day. To see if you have it, open a chat with someone (you don't actually have to message them). If your account is video-enabled, at the lower left of the chat window, there will be an interface element labeled "Video & more." When you click on that it will walk you through installing the plug-in. If you want to make a video call to someone who hasn't yet installed the plug-in, you'll be able to invite them to do so. (In my early test of the service, this feature wasn't yet enabled).
The existing downloadable Google Talk application, which has supported voice chat for a while, only later may get the video capability. The Google people I spoke with were noncommittal.
Upshot: The addition of voice and video makes Gmail a more compelling product. It's very nice to have all the major communications channels (e-mail, chat, voice, video, and soon, SMS) in one place and under one log-on. Google could, though, layer in some more connectivity into its own apps (like YouTube, Google Docs presentations, and Android) to make it even richer. And the lack of an interface to the standard phone system is limiting.
But Google got the first release of its videophone pretty much right. It works, it's easy, and if you're a Gmail user, the service is right where you want it.
Here's a Google developer's pitch for the service: