Google Hangouts and the problem with Free

Sep 17 2013 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Can Google Hangouts replace for a paid-for webinar or video conferencing platform? As far as the bean counters are concerned, who cares - "what part of free don't you understand?" What could possibly be wrong with free tools?

This argument is one I'm hearing a lot about from companies that are exploring Hangouts because it's easy to access, the video quality (especially on mobile devices) is better than a lot of others and, well, it's free!

While I don't claim any particular expertise on Google +, I have been playing with it and talking to organizations that are using it. What I'm discovering is that while it does a lot of cool things, it still doesn't match the way most of us work in the corporate world. Maybe that matters, maybe it doesn't, but it's important to be aware of the issues and limitations before jumping in.

So with more than 100 webinar and virtual collaboration tools out there to choose from, what is it that you're actually paying for and what do they do that Google Hangouts don't?

Let's start with what Hangouts does well:

The video chat is cool and easy. No argument, if seeing each other face-to-face is your priority, this tool works really well. It works surprisingly well on smart phones and tablets which makes it a great tool for informal chats and just-in-time calls. Think of it as Google's shot over the collective bows of Skype and Apple's FaceTime app. It also allows you to record easily, which leads us to….

It works really well with YouTube (if that's important to you). A lot of people like to show videos during webmeetings and the YouTube integration in Hangouts is about as easy as it gets. You can quickly share in your browser the link which goes directly to YouTube and everyone can watch the same video with reasonably good synching. Recordings will go to a designated YouTube channel.

How useful this is in a corporate context is debatable. It's probably a useful feature for small companies that use YouTube channels as part of their marketing. But for larger corporations, I don't see much benefit – not to mention that it is likely to incur the wrath of the corporate IT people.

It has good – but very limited - sharing features. If you want to share your screen with your attendees, it's easy to do in Google Hangouts. But that's all you can do. There are no annotation tools or easy passing of keyboard controls.

You can share Google Docs and work on them collaborately, but unless your team works in Google Docs on a regular basis, that's not a whole lot of use because you then have to export everything to Word, Excel or whatever else you use on a daily basis.

The Chat function is fine. Ummm, that's it. the chat function is fine.

You can put silly hats on people and use other wacky visual effects. You have the ability to use Google Effects to change people's appearance. This can be a fun way to break the ice and let people tease each other but might not be appropriate for meetings with senior leaders or customers. Oh, and the novelty wears off after about 37 seconds.

Here are some of the problems:

No simple white board or collaboration space. One of the most powerful tools in webinar and meeting tools is the white board- the ability to generate, capture and share information with each other in a simple, visual way. There simply is no similar tool in Hangouts (yet).

There are no survey, polling, or other voting tools. This isn't a bit deal when it's only a couple of people, but for larger groups, these tools would offer visual, interactive and engaging ways to get feedback. They simply don't exist in Hangouts.

You can't pre-load what you want to share. This is a big deal as far as webinars go. One of the advantages of webinar-specific tools is that you can have everything loaded and ready to go, and it's easy to switch from one visual to the next. When screensharing, it's much more clunky.

Working on documents collaboratively is clunky and time-consuming. I want to address the issue of work-arounds, because there ARE work-arounds for most of these limitations. But that's the major problem with free tools. You rely on work-arounds.

If getting people to use technology well is a problem for your team, it should be as easy to use as possible. If you have to log into other tools, re-enter information or have multiple screens open it becomes onerous and annoying.

Here's the thing, if the only justification people have for using a technology is that it's free, then the price is driving the work. You're also making it more complicated to get things done, which is no recipe for adoption and integration. Work should drive the choice of tools. If your team or company is already using Gmail and GoogleDocs, then Hangouts works with your workflow. If you don't, it probably is a temporary fix at best.

That's the problem with free. It often solves one problem while not making anything else particularly easier. And we haven't even started on the issue your IT folks will have about security and compatability.

Let the work you need to do drive your choice of tools, not the price.

Now, I'm really interested in hearing what you all think and I'm prepared to be proven wrong. What works for you?

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.