Hangout is one of several offerings Google hopes will lure people to its new social homepage called Google+. The site is designed to give users a place to organize their friends and interests in sort of a visual contact list. The company introduced the service Tuesday and is making it available as a field trial to select people.
The move is just the latest attempt by Google to find some entry into the social trend where Facebook has enjoyed a dominating presence. Social networking offers the community feel that builds on shared interests and a degree of trust, making it a fertile area for advertising that Google can't afford to miss.
A year in the making, Google+ has some of the obvious functions you'd expect. Its Circles feature lets you drag and drop your friends into groupings or compartments. And in a direct imitation of Facebook, Google+ offers Stream, a news feed that chronicles all the comments and photos your friends are posting.
But Hangout is different.
Anyone who has seen their kids gather excitedly around the computer on Oovoo or Tokbox knows how compelling video chatting can be. Hangout offers as many as 10 simultaneous video screens where groups meet face-to-face online with instant messaging thrown in to supplement the chatter.
Unlike Google Talk and Skype that have a more formal calling setups, Hangout promises to be more of a gathering where people drop in and drop out as they would if they were together at a physical location.
"Ultimately Hangout may be the feature that gets the most attention and draws users. It's directly competitive with a number of video chat products but most directly Skype," wrote Gary Sterling in his Google+ review on blog SearchEngineLand.
Two reasons Hangout might just work for Google: Kids like video conferencing, and it's the dang kids that determine what's cool. And secondly, rivals Skype and Facebook don't have an established "hangout" winner.
While Skype is brilliant in video calling, it doesn't really do much in terms of video chat rooms. That's likely to change under Microsoft (MSFT)
And even though in March, Facebook introduced SocialEyes -- a video conferencing application limited to six people -- the uptake has not been overwhelming so far.
The challenge for Google in social networking is giving people something they aren't already getting elsewhere, like Facebook. And Hangout might give Google+ a rare social advantage.